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Assisted Suicide Advocate Uses Law To End His Life

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Assisted Suicide Advocate Uses Law To End His Life


Assisted Suicide Advocate Uses Law To End His Life

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Dr. Peter Goodwin helped pass Oregon's assisted suicide legislation. In the early 1990s, he was one of the first physicians to voice support for the state's Death With Dignity Act.

Well, now, Goodwin has used the law to end his own life. From Portland, Julie Sabatier has his story.

JULIE SABATIER, BYLINE: As he was about to turn 83 last fall, Peter Goodwin still had an elfish glint in his eye. You can hear his heritage in his lilting voice.

DR. PETER GOODWIN: I was born in London, grew up in South Africa.

SABATIER: 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.

When he received his diagnosis, he began to think about the right time to use the law to end his own life. But as recently as last September, the right time still seemed far away.

GOODWIN: I don't want to die. No way do I want to die. You know, I enjoy life. I enjoy company. I enjoy my friends. I have many, many, many friends.

SABATIER: 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.

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

SABATIER: Two months ago, 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.

BARBARA COOMBS LEE: I don't think that we would have aid in dying in Oregon without Dr. Goodwin.

SABATIER: That's Barbara Coombs Lee. She worked closely with Goodwin to write the law and get it passed. Now, she heads up the organization Compassion and Choices. The nonprofit 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 if a person's death is imminent and inevitable, calling it a suicide is a grave disservice.

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

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

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

GOODWIN: I'm going to be saying goodbye to a lot of people, a lot of people whom I love. 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 will be a consolation.

SABATIER: Goodwin said having control over his own death allowed him to face it without fear. For NPR News, I'm Julie Sabatier in Portland.

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