Dr. Peter Goodwin, a family physician and right-to-die activist, took his own life on March 11, 2012, at age 83. He did it legally, with the blessing of his family and doctors, under the Oregon law allowing physician-assisted suicide — the first such law in the country — that Goodwin was instrumental in creating.
Dr. Goodwin granted TIME his last interview, four days before he died.CLICK TO WATCH
(The full interview will be available online on Thursday and in print on Friday.) He did not look like a dying man; he was chirpy and alert and still had a mischievous twinkle in his eye. However, as a result of his fatal disease — a Parkinsons-like condition called coritcobasal degeneration — he could not use his right hand or do much reliably with his left. Walking was difficult for him and stairs were particularly treacherous. He did not want to die, but death was coming anyway, and he did not want to wait.
“I can no longer eat in public,” Goodwin said. “My balance is gradually deteriorating. My three doctors agree that I’m within six months of dying. My attending physician has given me a prescription for medication to end my life and I have had it filled.”
In Oregon, doctors may not administer injections to end a life, but they are allowed to write prescriptions for lethal drugs for mentally competent people who are able to take the medication without help and have less than six months to live. And yes, the prescriptions are covered by health insurance.
Dr. Goodwin took his life on Sunday not because he could not bear to live any more nor because he was in incredible pain, but because he wanted to die among family. He timed his death so that his four children and their spouses could be there, including his younger son, who is a Navy pilot in Korea. During our interview, he wept several times at the thought of no longer being involved in their lives.
Ever the activist — Goodwin was brought up in South Africa and his cousin was a defendant in the Rivonia trial alongside Nelson Mandela — the doctor wanted to make his death mean something. The moral question of whether doctors should be allowed to enable terminally ill people to kill themselves is not yet settled in the U.S. Currently physician-assisted suicide is permitted only in Oregon, Washington and Montana.
Oregon voters approved the Death With Dignity Act at the polls in 1994; it was enacted three years later, after they voted down legislation that would have repealed it. To date, 597 people have died under its provisions. Goodwin, who has himself helped three patients die under the legislation — and one patient even before the Death with Dignity Law — has fought tirelessly to change people’s attitudes about death, right up until his own.
Goodwin gave lectures and interviews as long as he was able about the importance of advance directives at the end of life as well as open and frank discussion with loved ones. He wanted the end of life to be as gentle as possible and within the patient’s control. He was also a big advocate of allowing dying people to receive hospice care early, rather than letting doctors continually try to cure them. “Physicians are taught to treat, and they often go on treating and treating and treating,” he said. “It’s very, very difficult because they have so much in their armamentarium — so many new ways of treating cancer, so many new ways of treating heart disease — it’s very difficult for physicians to give up.”
Goodwin passed, it seems, just as he wanted to: half an hour after taking the lethal dose of medication his doctor prescribed for him and surrounded by his children.