Doctor who helped craft Death With Dignity Act dies at 83by Julio Mirabelli
Oregon physician Peter Goodwin used the law he was instrumental in creating to end his own life.
Goodwin, 83, was in the late stages of corticobasal ganglionic degeneration, an incurable, Parkinson’s-like disease that causes dementia and the gradual loss of movement. He received the diagnosis in 2006. On March 11, 2012 he used the Death with Dignity law to end his own life.
Four days before his death, he told Time Magazine his balance was impaired, his right hand had lost all function and his left hand was quite weak. The law requires that the dying person be able to take the drugs without assistance, so he knew his time to act was short.
He obtained his prescription after receiving a prognosis of six months to live from his doctors and completing the two-week waiting period required by the law. With his children at his side, he died peacefully at his Portland home less than half an hour after taking the drugs, according to a statement from Compassion & Choices, a Portland nonprofit Goodwin helped establish to promote the Death With Dignity Act and support those who wished to use it.
In 1970 a man with terminal bone cancer came to see Dr. Peter Goodwin, who practiced family medicine in Portland, Ore. The man suffered from terrible pain and saw no point in prolonging his suffering. He pleaded with Goodwin for pills to end his life.
His request plunged the doctor into an ethical dilemma. If Goodwin granted the man’s request, he knew he could face felony manslaughter charges. If he refused, he was turning his back on a dying man.
“It was as if somebody was presenting themselves to me with a disease that I had never heard of, and no resources existed which could help me make my decision,” Goodwin said, recalling the dilemma. “I look back on that experience to this day with absolute desolation and regret. I could do nothing.”
Two decades after turning down the patient desperate to die, Goodwin took a different course, one that ignited emotional debates about patients’ rights and the sanctity of life. He played a leading role in crafting and promoting Oregon’s pioneering Death With Dignity Act, which made Oregon the first state in the nation to allow physicians to prescribe lethal drugs to the terminally ill with less than six months to live.
A longtime faculty member of Oregon Health and Science University and past president of the Oregon Academy of Family Physicians, Goodwin brought mainstream credentials to his controversial advocacy of doctor-assisted death.
In 1990, he began meeting with a group interested in legalizing doctor-assisted death. It evolved into Oregon Right to Die, which put the Death With Dignity measure on the 1994 state ballot.
Critics argued that it violated the physician’s obligation to do no harm and warned of abuses, but the measure passed with 51% of the vote. In 1997, 60% of voters affirmed it by turning down its repeal.
Between 1997, when the law was enacted, and 2011, 596 Oregon residents have died by ingesting medications prescribed under the Death With Dignity Act, according to a recent report by that Oregon Health Authority, Goodwin told Time that he helped three people die under the legislation.
A few years after Goodwin’s disturbing encounter with the bone cancer patient, he found himself in grave conversation with another terminally ill man. This time, he wrote the prescription. He was “terrified” of being found out, yet his belief in “aid in dying,” with safeguards prescribed by law, did not wither.
“I believe that physicians in general are not trained to listen and assess what’s going on in a (dying) patient’s mind and environment, so they make arbitrary decisions,” he said in 1997. “Patients deserve more power.”
Goodwin’s four children regretfully supported his decision to die on his own terms.