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By Derek Humphry

If there is anybody in the right-to-die movement who made a radical difference it was Dr. Peter Goodwin, who brought his life to an end on 11 March 2012 in the presence of his family, using the law he helped to pass. Aged 83, he suffered from an incurable brain illness.

Up until the time when he joined Hemlock and then in l992 chaired the Oregon Right to Die Committee, the American movement campaigned for both voluntary euthanasia (direct injection) and physician-assisted suicide (oral ingestion). Hemlock’s model law, which had been narrowly voted down in California and Washington states, specified both forms of hastened death.

But Peter argued that the law was more likely to pass if it sanctioned only physician-assisted suicide. He persuaded his colleagues that enough doctors were willing to help terminally ill people die but that injecting lethal doses was abhorrent to them. It smacked too much of killing. He argued successfully that a single-purpose law, with the doctor playing a more remote role – prescribing the lethal overdose but not being present — would succeed in Oregon. The final responsibility lay with the patient.

Peter’s next contribution was to attend the annual meeting of the Oregon Medical Society and persuade its members to not oppose the
law when it came up for a vote by citizens’ ballot initiative, now named the Oregon Death With Dignity Act. He failed to get the Medical Society to support the law but at least they agreed to not oppose it.

Voters approved the law in l994 and again in l997. The Oregon- type law has since been passed in Washington state and introduced in England and many other places since. Residents of Oregon who were close to death, and met the law’s requirements, and used it, now number 596 since it became operational in l998.

Medical training

Peter Goodwin was born in London, England, on December 11, 1928, and grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. He graduated in 1951 from the Medical School at the University of Cape Town. After an eighteen-month internship, he became a general practitioner in Queenstown, an isolated district town in Eastern South Africa, from 1953 to 1962, except for the two years 1958-9 during when he studied surgery in England, and gained Fellowship in the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

Peter and his wife Erica had four children. Erica died after 50 years of marriage in 2008.

In 1962 the couple emigrated to the USA. After a year-long internship in Springfield, Mass., he became a family physician in Camas, WA, from 1963 to 1980. In 1974 I took a year’s sabbatical from practice, and spent it as a visiting professor in the Dept of Family Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. He was invited to join the faculty of the Dept of Family Medicine at Oregon Health Sciences University in 1978, and was full-time on the faculty from 1980 to 1996. He was then awarded emeritus status, and continued to teach and consult within the department until finally retiring in 2003.

Joined Hemlock

Concerned about the powerlessness of dying patients, he joined the Hemlock Society in 1990. In 1992 he accepted the chairmanship of the Oregon Right to Die Committee, which succeeded in having the Oregon Death with Dignity Act enacted in 1997, after political and legal opposition was overcome.

Peter was medical advisor to Compassion in Dying of Oregon for the following year, helping to give counsel and care to 30 terminally ill patients. Those experiences reinforced his opinion that the option of aid in dying, with adequate legal safeguards, markedly improved care of terminally ill patients.

Six years ago, Peter received a diagnosis of corticobasal ganglionic degeneration, a rare disease with no known cause or cure, and very few therapies to relieve symptoms.

Barbara Coombs Lee, President of Compassion and Choices, said of Peter: “His principled and passionate leadership laid the groundwork for a broad expansion of end-of-life choice across the nation which continues to this day.”

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