Doctor Who Pushed For Oregon Assisted Suicide Law Ends His Own Life

March 14, 2012

Photo courtesy of Carla Axtman/

“I don’t want to go out with a whimper. I want to say good-bye to my kids and my wife with dignity. And I would end it. Damn right.”

Dr. Peter Goodwin, an Oregon doctor, spoke these words while campaigning for the state’s Death With Dignity Act, which went into effect in 1997. He was one of the first doctors to come out publicly in support of the bill, which allows doctors to prescribe lethal medications to terminally ill patients, who can then self-administer the drugs.

This week, Goodwin, who suffered from corticobasal ganglionic degeneration, a terminal brain disorder that limits movement, ended his own life. He was 83.

In an interview with The Oregonian just a few weeks ago, Goodwin called the Death With Dignity Act his greatest legacy, and pointed to increased attention to hospice and palliative care as ways in which the law helped the medical field. He also told the paper he hopes the law has helped people better understand and prepare for death:

“We just haven’t come to terms with the fact that we’re going to die, all of us, and to make concessions to that is really giving up hope.” On the contrary, he says; when at death’s door, “the situation needs thought, it doesn’t need hope. It needs planning, it doesn’t need hope. Hope is too ephemeral at that time.”

Oregon and Washington are the only states with Death With Dignity laws on the books; the Montana Supreme Court has left the door open for such a law, but the state has yet to pass one. According to the latest data from Oregon, 65 people used the Death With Dignity Act to end their lives in 2010, a record number. More than 500 people have used it since the law was enacted.

The issue of assisted suicide is being taken up in states across the country; it’s particularly controversial in Georgia, where last month, the state Supreme Court struck down a 1994 law criminalizing the promotion of assisted suicide. The case was brought by four members of Final Exit, a right-to-die organization, who were charged under the law after correspondence and other written material was found in the home of John Celmer, who committed suicide in 2008.

Last week, the Georgia House of Representatives passed a bill that would make assisting in another person’s suicide a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The Senate has yet to vote on the proposed legislation.

In Vermont, the legislature is currently considering an assisted suicide law very similar to the one in Oregon. And in Massachusetts, the Joint Commission of the Judiciary just heard arguments as part of a Death With Dignity ballot initiative being proposed for the November 2012 elections.

And the issue resonates worldwide, as we explored in our 2010 film The Suicide Tourist, which profiles Craig Ewert, an American who ended his life with the guidance of Dignitas, a Swiss right-to-die organization. Ewert, who was diagnosed with ALS, allowed his experience to be filmed.

For more on the complexity of the debate over assisted suicide, explore these long-form reads.

And here are some final words from Dr. Goodwin on why he fought so hard for Oregon’s law and why he decided to use it himself:

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