To commemorate the 20th anniversary of implementation of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, we are featuring stories of those who in 1997 campaigned against the repeal of the law adopted by Oregon voters 3 years before.

Other installments in the series:

When the Oregon state Legislature made the unprecedented decision to place Measure 51 on the November 1997 ballot, the stage was set for a fierce campaign in the media and in the Statehouse. The measure, if passed, would have repealed Measure 16, the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, and ignored the will of the voters who had passed Measure 16 three years prior.

Death with Dignity National Center Board president, George Eighmey, was vice-chairman of the Oregon House of Representatives Judiciary Committee during the 1997 Measure 51 campaign. He held hearings featuring advocates, physicians, attorneys, and others on both sides of the Death with Dignity debate.

One of the foremost physician advocates for the Oregon law was the late Peter Goodwin, MD. In addition to practicing medicine in Oregon for 34 years, Dr. Goodwin was a professor at Oregon Health and Science University’s School of Medicine; a co-founder of Oregon Right to Die, the political action committee that led the successful campaign to pass Measure 16; a co-author of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act; a chief petitioner of the law; and a member of Physicians for Death with Dignity, a group established by our predecessor organization that conducted outreach to medical professionals across Oregon to garner their support for the law. On March 11, 2012, following a six-year battle with a rare neurogenerative disease, Dr. Goodwin ended his life using the law for which he fought tirelessly.

The late Peter Goodwin, MD, with his wife, Erica Goodwin in June 2008. (OHSU Digital Commons)

Our archives contain physical copies of testimony given by physicians, attorneys, patients and their loved ones to the Oregon House of Representatives Judiciary Committee in March 1997. Below is Goodwin’s testimony from March 11, 1997.

My name is Peter Goodwin. I have practiced in the Northwest as a family physician for 34 years. From 1980 to 1996 I worked as a faculty member in the department of Family Practice at Oregon Health Sciences University. I continue to teach students and residents, and to see patients.

We must never forget that the issue of physician-assisted suicide, or aid-in-dying, as I prefer to regard it, is driven by patients, and by the needs of terminally ill, dying patients. My participation in the issue has resulted from my professional involvement with them, and from my gradual realization that allowing them the lawful option of physician-assisted suicide would empower them in their dealings with the medical profession.

I have seen many patients die in hospital. Almost always the patient and his or her loved ones were powerless, bewildered participants, often ill-informed or not informed about the true state of affairs, and not invited to participate in the decisions that were made, decisions that concerned them most grievously. By contrast, the few patients for whom I cared who were able to die at home, achieved an integrated process, and a peaceful death.

The passage of Ballot Measure 16 was more than a wake-up call to the medical profession. It is a law that provides an additional option for a small minority of dying patients who desperately need that option.

In the past 20 years hospice has become an all-important element to this compassionate approach to the care of the dying that cannot be ignored. Twice I was asked by patients to help them to die. One was a man with a progressive untreatable tumor of the spine that caused him unremitting pain, that had paralyzed his legs, and had caused him to lose bladder control. The second was a man near death from cancer of the pancreas, who eventually died a terrible death because I was prevented by the law from doing what he, supported by his family, desperately wanted me to do. I knew that both requests were voluntary, and I believed then, and still do, that they were rational.

I decided that the most effective way to change the law was by appealing to those who would benefit, the people of Oregon. I joined the campaign to launch an initiative petition. That campaign culminated in the passage of ballot measure 16 in the November, 1994 election.

Since that campaign, the medical professions in Oregon have prepared for the implementation of the law. Physicians have become familiar with the provisions of the death with dignity statute, and with its provisional safeguards. I have spoken to several specialty organizations and hospital medical staffs about appropriately responding to requests from terminally ill patients for assisted suicide. Surveys of several physician groups in Oregon have shown majority support for the legislation. The majority also regard it as ethically acceptable.

The passage of ballot measure 16 was the goad that the medical profession needed to respond speedily to the needs of their terminally ill dying patients. To further delay its implementation will break faith with the electorate of Oregon. It may also send the wrong message to those who have worked hard to achieve the improvements in care of the dying that have resulted from its passage.

The passage of ballot measure 16 was more than a wake-up call to the medical profession. It is a law that provides an additional option for a small minority of dying patients who desperately need that option. It is a law that will give reassurance to many more who will ultimately be adequately cared for by supportive care that is presently available, and who will not use the option it provides.

The people of Oregon voted the Oregon Death with Dignity Act into law. It is an insult to the people of Oregon to question their intelligent choice in this matter. It is an insult to suggest that the dying are so enfeebled that they do not know what they want, when the law demands as a starting point that they be fully capable of making such decisions. The implementation of the statute is now overdue. It is time to proceed!