Dr. Peter Rasmussen, a retired oncologist and pioneer of the death-with-dignity movement, died at his home in Salem, Oregon, on November 3, 2015, aided by the law he was instrumental in passing.
Rasmussen worked for three decades helping people with cancer as both physician and advocate, and served on the advisory board for Compassion & Choices Oregon. He received international attention in the 1990s by speaking out in support of allowing terminal patients to end their lives on their terms, instead of persisting through the miseries of their illness, at a time when few others were willing to step forward. “Who is it who makes life-and-death decisions?” Rasmussen said. “Is it the doctor? No. Is it the government? No. It should be the patient who makes those very important personal decisions.”
He was one of very few physicians who actively worked to pass Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act in 1994, defended it before the U.S. Supreme Court and honored his patients’ requests to use the law – as well as requests from others whose own doctors were unwilling. “He practiced in an environment that was often hostile to medical aid in dying, yet he did not abandon his patients,” C&C President Barbara Coombs Lee says.
Diagnosed with glioblastoma in 2014, the same type of brain cancer Brittany Maynard suffered from, Rasmussen underwent radiation, chemotherapy and multiple surgeries to stave off the tumor’s dreaded symptoms. Although he hoped palliative and hospice care would allow him to die naturally, he was comforted knowing he had another option – one he had fought for on behalf of his own patients years before.
“How fitting that he was able to benefit from the law he worked so courageously to establish,” Coombs Lee notes, “and what better endorsement of that law than to have a doctor who has provided the option to his patients actually want it for himself.”