US physician behind Death With Dignity dies

2012-03-13 13:25
Portland - A South African-educated physician who campaigned for a US, Oregon state law that allows patients with terminal conditions to end their lives died on Sunday after using lethal chemicals obtained under the initiative he championed. He was 83-years-old.

Peter Goodwin died on Sunday at his home surrounded by his family, said a spokesperson for Compassion & Choices, an organisation he helped launch. The group advocates laws that help terminal patients die, and supports patients and families facing the end of life.

Goodwin was diagnosed in 2006 with a rare brain disorder, corticobasal ganglionic degeneration, that progressively robbed him of his movement. Years earlier, campaigning for an Oregon assisted suicide law, he talked publicly about what he would do if he received a terminal diagnosis.

"I don't want to go out with a whimper. I want to say goodbye to my kids and my wife with dignity. And I would end it," he said years before his diagnosis, according to a profile published last month in The Oregonian.

In an interview with the newspaper shortly before his death, he reflected on his life.

"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," he said.

65 used law in 2012

Rather, in his view, 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 was the first state to allow terminally ill patients to take their own lives with the help of lethal medications supplied by a doctor. Voters approved the Death With Dignity Act in 1994 and 1997.

In 2010, 65 people used it to precipitate their death, the largest number since the law was enacted.

The states of Washington and Montana have adopted similar legislation.

Goodwin campaigned for years to enact the law, and he has called it his greatest legacy. He said it spurred medicine to focus attention on the needs of the dying, with more palliative care and hospice.

"I was honoured to call Peter Goodwin a compatriot and a friend," said Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices. "Our hearts are broken at his loss. The state of Oregon, medicine, and the world have lost a great leader. Most of all, our sympathies are with his family whom he dearly loved."

Learned Xhosa

According to the Oregonian, Goodwin was born in London and grew up in South Africa and was encouraged by his father to study medicine.

"As a young doctor, he opened a practice for black South Africans in the burg of Queenstown. He travelled around to see patients and learned Xhosa" and other local languages.

The report continues to say he married a teacher named Erica who was involved in anti-apartheid politics.

"When her picture appeared in the local newspaper, a nurse warned Goodwin that his white clientele didn't like his wife's activism. The Goodwins packed their bags and fled South Africa in 1962."

Goodwin's wife died in October 2008.

Life is unfair, Goodwin told The Oregonian. But he offered a prescription.

"Be fulfilled," he said. "In other words, be happy with yourself. Recognise achievements and be proud of them then go on to further achievements. Know what you want to do and do it. Be happy. Know good friends. Be in love."

- Click here to see a video of Dr Peter Goodwin speaking about life, death and lessons learned.
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