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Assisted Suicide Advocate Uses Law To End His Life

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One of the first physicians to voice support for Oregon's controversial assisted suicide legislation in the early 1990s has used the state's Death with Dignity Act to end his own life.

Dr. Peter Goodwin practiced as a family physician in Oregon and Washington for five decades. Well after Oregon's Death with Dignity law passed, he was diagnosed with a rare brain disease known as corticobasal degeneration. As it progresses, the condition can affect balance, muscle control and speech as well as cognitive abilities. Last September, Goodwin said that when he received his diagnosis he began to think about the right time to use the law to end his own life. But back then, the right time still seemed far away.

"I don't want to die," he said then. "No way do I want to die. I enjoy life; I enjoy company; I enjoy my friends. I have many, many, many friends."

He was about to turn 83 and he still had an elfish glint in his eye. You could hear his heritage in his lilting voice — born in London and raised in South Africa.

Under the law, doctors can prescribe medication to hasten the death of terminally ill patients with six-month prognoses. Patients must be mentally competent and they must administer the medication to themselves. Goodwin was very aware that the nature of his disease could rob him of his ability to use the law.

"That possibility is something that I'm going to desperately try and avoid," he said. "And so I'm going to try and have a six-month prognosis, making me eligible to use the law before I lose my marbles."

In January, Goodwin got that prognosis from his physicians. On Sunday, he swallowed a fast-acting barbiturate prescribed by his doctor. He died less than half an hour later.

'A Different Kind Of Death'

Barbara Coombs Lee worked closely with Goodwin to write the law and to get it passed. "I don't think that we would have aid in dying in Oregon without Dr. Goodwin," she says.

Now, Coombs Lee heads up the nonprofit Compassion and Choices, an organization that helps patients and doctors learn how to use Oregon's Death with Dignity Act. It's often called assisted suicide, but the law specifically rejects that term. Coombs Lee says that if a person's death is imminent and inevitable, calling it suicide is a grave disservice.

"Would we say that the people who jumped from the World Trade Center were committing suicide?" she asks. "I wouldn't, because the fire was in their face and they chose a different kind of death."

More than 500 people have used the Oregon law to end their lives since it went into effect 15 years ago. The law survived the U.S. Supreme Court and the practice is now legal in Washington state and Montana. There's also an effort to pass a similar law in Massachusetts later this year.

Fighting Fear With Control

Oregon's Death with Dignity Act was the first like it in the nation. Peter Goodwin considered it his life's work. Earlier this month, Goodwin said his decision to use the law himself was the most difficult of all.

"I'm going to be saying goodbye to a lot of people, a lot of people whom I love," he said. "And I just wish that I could say to them, when I cross the River Styx, 'I'm going to be feeling as loving towards you as you feel towards me.' That would be a consolation."

Goodwin said having control over his own death allowed him to face it without fear.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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