Tuesday, March 13, 2012

He Practiced What He Preached

Dr. Peter Goodwin, one of the first proponents of Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, ended his own life on March 11th after taking lethal medication, a fast-acting barbituate which provided a peaceful death in less than 30 minutes. He was 82 years old and suffered from a rare and fatal brain disease called corticobasal degeneration which affects balance, muscle control and speech as well as cognition. In January, he was given six months to live.

Under the Oregon law, doctors can prescribe medication to hasten the death of terminally ill patients with a six-month prognosis. The patients must be mentally competent and administer the drug themselves. More than 500 people have used the Oregon law to end their lives. The initiative, the first in the country, has survived a Supreme Court challenge. Washington also has laws allowing physician-assisted suicides.

A year ago, Dr. Goodwin said, "I don't want to die. No way do I want to die. I enjoy life; I enjoy company; I enjoy my friends. I have many, many, many friends." But the horrors of his illness apparently changed his mind and he died surrounded by his wife, four children and their spouses.

He practiced as a family physician in Oregon and Washington for five decades, and was instrumental in getting Oregon's Death With Dignity Act passed in the early 1990s when it was expected to fail at the ballot. He first became interested in the cause 20 years ago when a patient asked for his help. The patient had a fatal spinal tumor and was in severe pain. The patient's wife asked Goodwin if she could administer a prescription, but he reluctantly refused, telling her it was against the law.

He told the story to the Oregon legislature, saying his inability to act when the man was in such pain made him feel like a coward. "We cannot deal compassionately with people if we limit their options," he said.

At what point does a person determine that his quality of life does not justify being alive? It is inconceivable that one should ever be in that position, but it is also unimaginable to live in constant pain, or to be reduced to a set of involuntary impulses with all ones unique personality erased by a horrible disease. Most religions would have us believe that suicide is a sin or at least a most negative action, and that to commit it brings hideous consequences. I would like to think that any God worthy of our worship would be compassionate enough to understand that humans have limits.

In some ways, suicide is the final taboo. While it could be argued that our bodies belong to us alone, the concept of doing violence to ourselves is usually harder to grok than committing it on others. So we rationalize that those who take their own lives are not in their right minds. The Oregon law is an exception in that the doctor who prescribes lethal medication must first determine that his patient is in fact thinking clearly. Of course, this is hard to prove or disprove.

I cannot imagine the sorrow of losing a loved one by his own choice, yet who among us would choose to keep a loved one in great and incurable pain? It is impossible to condemn a person who exercises the right to choose his own death. The question really is, does he or she have that right? I believe so, although my heart breaks at the thought of it. What are your beliefs on this topic? I would really like to know.