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Peter Goodwin, Pioneer for Human Liberty

Eighteen years ago, Dr. Peter Goodwin led the fight to grant Oregonians the right to end-of-life choice. I was honored to work alongside Peter as a co-campaigner and call him a friend. Both as a physician and an advocate, he promoted honesty in facing death. This month he confronted his own approaching death with the same honesty. Terminally ill with a rare, fatal brain disease with no known cure, Peter exercised the right to a peaceful death he helped secure.

Without Peter, Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act (DWDA) simply would not exist, nor would our national movement be where it is today. He is a hero of mine. A pioneer for human liberty, Peter had the courage to talk about death openly in a death-denying culture. Though not a political person, he exposed himself to the rough and tumble of the political arena, a sacrifice in service to compassion at the end of life. Even in the face of determined opposition, Peter campaigned tirelessly and never lost faith or focus.

Peter, Elven Sinnard and I were the chief petitioners for the ballot measure that led to the legal aid in dying in Oregon. Peter called his accomplishments as chair of the committee to pass the DWDA in the mid 1990s “the most gratifying of my entire life.” He was instrumental in persuading the Oregon Medical Association to remain neutral in 1994 and assembled physician colleagues to stand in contrast to the Association’s opposition in 1997. After implementation began, Dr. Goodwin helped launch Compassion & Choices of Oregon and became its first Medical Director.

His dedication never flagged. In the past month, knowing he had only weeks of life remaining, he gave generously of his time, granting multiple interviews on his life’s work and the importance of end-of-life choice. Speaking on camera, he talked about his work on aid in dying, and his approaching death.

Peter began medical practice as a surgeon. He ended it as a role model and educator in family practice, promoting healing and growth from the beginning of life to its end. He said no experience was more powerful than interacting with dying patients. Here he talks about abiding by and caring for patients as they approached death.

Even more important than being a great physician, teacher, and human rights leader was Peter’s devotion to family. Erica, his wife of 50 years died in 2008. Peter said, “I will never get over the loss of her presence in my life. If her death had not preceded mine, this decision would be much more difficult.” Just weeks ago, he talked about saying goodbyes.

On Sunday, March 11, 2012, Peter died after taking medication he obtained under the provisions of Oregon law. He was surrounded by his four children and their spouses, and a Compassion & Choices volunteer was with them as well. Much laughter and love surrounded Peter as he spoke his final farewell. His last message to friends and colleagues: “Love abounds.”

We shall miss our dear friend. We draw comfort knowing his life was rich in meaning and filled with love, and that he died on his own terms with courage, grace and dignity. None could ask for more. With sincere gratitude we honor a genuine humanitarian and pioneer for end-of-life liberty, Dr. Peter Goodwin.

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Barbara Coombs Lee is President of Compassion & Choices, a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding and protecting the rights of the terminally ill. She practiced as a nurse and physician assistant for 25 years before beginning a career in law and health

Since then she has devoted her professional life to individual choice and empowerment in health care. As a private attorney, as counsel to the Oregon State Senate, as a managed care executive and finally as Chief Petitioner for Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, she has championed initiatives that enable individuals to consider a full range of choices and be full participants in their health care decisions.

Ms. Lee took her undergraduate education at Vassar College and Cornell University and obtained advanced degrees in law and medicine from the University of Washington and Lewis & Clark College. She holds an adjunct position at the University of Washington School of Public Health and Preventative Medicine and is a member of the Oregon State Bar.

She has been interviewed by NBC News, CNN Crossfire, 60 Minutes, McNeil Lehrer News Hour, NPR, The Today Show, and Bill Moyers’ “On Death and Dying” among others. She has also testified before the US Congress on end-of-life issues.

She has been recognized with a national health Policy Fellowship, Boeringer Ingeheim Foundation, an American Jurisprudence Award for outstanding performance in the study of medical law and a National Health Lawyers Association scholarship for outstanding student achievement.

Ms. Coombs Lee has been a presenter at programs sponsored by American Bar Association, Older Women’s League, American Pain Society, Oregon State Bar, Americans for Better Care of The Dying, American Associations for the Advancement of Science, End of Life Concerns, and the American Pain Society. She spoke at the World Federation Right to Die conference in Zurich, Boston and Brussels.
Her audiences have included the Oregon Gerontological Association: the California Nurse Assembly & Education Conference. Her debate “Doctor Assisted Suicide: Compassionate Alternative or Murder” with James Bopp, Jr., was produced by “Justice Talking” a project of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center
for Public Radio.

Since Gonzales v. Oregon, the lawsuit defending the Oregon assisted-dying law, Ms. Coombs Lee has been interviewed by many of the nation’s newspapers. She has been quoted in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. Recently, The Harvey M. Meyerhoff Lectures on Ethics at the End of Life hosted her presentation “Local Medical Practice and the Federal Threat” at Johns Hopkins University.