“Death with Dignity” activistPeter Goodwin

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A medical doctor, Goodwin was a family practitioner when, in 1972, a patient dying from cancer asked for help dying. Goodwin turned him away, but it got him thinking. “I got to know the man and his wife and family, and I was scared for the future of their three children.” But as many doctors do, Goodwin finally gave the patient barbiturates. “Two weeks later, he used [them]. I remember thinking: What have I done? Every time the phone rang, I thought for sure it was the cops.” The incident made clear to Goodwin “the fact that my profession was so inept at the care of the dying.“

He then took a job as professor of family medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, and in the late 1980s a lawyer called for a public meeting about the issue of helping the terminally ill to die on their own terms. “Peter was the only doctor to come to the meeting,” says that attorney, Eli D. Stutsman. “He was in the best part of his career then, and it took a lot of courage to stand up when you’re at that stage in your life and fight the good fight.“ But he did fight for that right, against strong political and religious opposition, and in 1994, voters approved Oregon’s “Death With Dignity Act”, one of the first such laws in the world. The law legally allows terminal patients who meet certain criteria to request assistance from their doctors to die — and legally allows doctors to provide it.

Passage was not the end of the fight, however: another initiative got on the ballot to repeal the Act, but more voters turned it down than supported the first measure. Despite other challenges, up to and including defending the law before the U.S. Supreme Court, Stutsman prevailed, and the law remains on the Oregon books today. Which Goodwin appreciated, since six years ago he was diagnosed with corticobasal ganglionic degeneration, which is similar to Parkinson’s disease. It has no cure. As Goodwin approached death from that, he applied for relief under Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act. He chose the date of his death: March 11. He was 83.

From This is True for 18 March 2012