Dr. Peter Goodwin, 83; championed law allowing ‘death with dignity’

PORTLAND, Ore. - Peter Goodwin fought for years to give terminally ill patients the right to die on their own terms. When he couldn’t fight anymore, that’s exactly what he did.

The Portland physician died Sunday in his home after using lethal chemicals obtained under an Oregon law he championed. He was 83.

Dr. Goodwin was surrounded by his family, said a spokesman for Compassion & Choices, an organization he helped launch. The group advocates laws that help terminal patients die, and supports patients and families facing the end of life.

Dr. 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 in 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.

Rather, in his view, when at death’s door, “the situation needs thought, it doesn’t need hope. It needs planning . . . 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 deaths. Washington and Montana have adopted similar laws.

Dr. 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.

“The state of Oregon, medicine, and the world have lost a great leader,’’ said Barbara Coombs Lee, who heads Compassion & Choices.

Dr. Goodwin, born and educated in South Africa, was a family physician at Oregon Health and Science University since 1985.

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

“Be fulfilled,’’ he said. “In other words, be happy with yourself. Recognize 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.’’