Doctor who championed right to die ends his life

Print More
Dr. Peter Rasmussen, a retired medical oncologist who led the Death With Dignity movement and defended the Oregon law in the U.S. Supreme Court, takes his dog, Pugsley, for a walk around their East Salem neighborhood on Dec. 3, 2014. Photo by Danielle Peterson/Statesman Journal, courtesy of USA Today

Dr. Peter Rasmussen, a retired medical oncologist who led the Death With Dignity movement and defended the Oregon law in the U.S. Supreme Court, takes his dog, Pugsley, for a walk around their East Salem neighborhood on Dec. 3, 2014. Photo by Danielle Peterson/Statesman Journal, courtesy of USA Today

Dr. Peter Rasmussen, a retired medical oncologist who led the Death With Dignity movement and defended the Oregon law in the U.S. Supreme Court, takes his dog, Pugsley, for a walk around their East Salem neighborhood on Dec. 3, 2014. Photo by Danielle Peterson/Statesman Journal, courtesy of USA Today

Dr. Peter Rasmussen, a retired medical oncologist who led the Death With Dignity movement and defended the Oregon law in the U.S. Supreme Court, takes his dog, Pugsley, for a walk around their East Salem neighborhood on Dec. 3, 2014. Photo by Danielle Peterson/Statesman Journal, courtesy of USA Today

SALEM, Ore. — Dr. Peter Rasmussen, a national advocate for legalizing physician aid in dying, died Tuesday (Nov. 3) with the help of Oregon’s Death with Dignity law, his family said.

Rasmussen, 70, was an oncologist who was passionate about caring for terminal patients and ensuring that they could make own their medical choices in the face of death. He was diagnosed with grade 4 glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumor, in spring 2014.

Rasmussen’s wife, Cindy Rasmussen, said her husband was surrounded by family when he took a lethal dose of drugs to end his life.

She described his last moments as peaceful. He died 30 minutes after taking the medicine.

The family had a private ceremony Sunday before his death to honor him and share memories.


READ: We have a right to pigheaded ideas. Now what should we do? (COMMENTARY)


Rasmussen was one of the few physicians who dared to speak in support of Oregon’s Death with Dignity ballot measure in the 1990s, and his medical career at times took a hit from his controversial stance. Even after Oregon voters approved the measure, state and national forces sought to shut down the policy.

He ultimately joined a group of plaintiffs suing the federal government, which had attempted to nullify Oregon’s law.

In 2001, then-U.S. Attorney John Ashcroft said he would penalize doctors who prescribed federally controlled substances to help patients die. The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case and decided in support of Oregon in January 2006.

Former state Rep. George Eighmey, a Democrat from Portland, Ore., who worked with Rasmussen to keep the law from being blocked, said in a December 2014 interview with the Statesman Journal that Rasmussen was instrumental in keeping Death with Dignity intact.

“He was probably one of the most bravest and received some of the most vitriolic comments from opponents,” Eighmey said. “They vilified him and it was unfortunate, because Peter is one of the most compassionate, understanding physicians I’ve ever met.”


READ: Pope Francis ‘prepared to battle’ on Vatican reform, senior cardinal says


Eighmey is now president of the board of Death with Dignity National Center, which played an active role in California’s physician aid-in-dying bill. California’s Gov. Jerry Brown signed his state’s legislation into law Oct. 5.

Rasmussen had been drawn to helping terminal patients since early in his career. After practicing as a general internist for three years, he went to the University of Miami in Florida to complete an oncology fellowship and returned to found a practice that is now Hematology Oncology of Salem.

Dr. Peter Rasmussen, a retired medical oncologist who led the Death With Dignity movement and defended the Oregon law in the U.S. Supreme Court, takes his dog, Pugsley, for a walk around their East Salem neighborhood on Dec. 3, 2014. Photo by Danielle Peterson/Statesman Journal, courtesy of USA Today

Dr. Peter Rasmussen, a retired medical oncologist who led the Death With Dignity movement and defended the Oregon law in the U.S. Supreme Court, takes his dog, Pugsley, for a walk around their East Salem neighborhood on Dec. 3, 2014. Photo by Danielle Peterson/Statesman Journal, courtesy of USA Today

Rasmussen also helped found Willamette Valley Hospice and served on Salem Hospital’s medical ethics committee and led the creation of physician orders for life-sustaining treatment. The form allows patients approaching end of life to let emergency responders know whether and to what extent they wish to be resuscitated.

The provisions now are in use or being developed in most states.

When Rasmussen wasn’t caring for cancer patients and volunteering for causes relating to end-of-life issues, he acted in local productions, tended to his yard, cared for his dog, Pugsley, and traveled. After retiring in 2009, Rasmussen was an active student and instructor at Willamette University’s Institute of Continued Learning.

He was born Aug. 29, 1945, in Elmhurst, Ill. Survivors include his his wife, Cindy Rasmussen; stepdaughter Gretchen Higgins of New York City; and stepson Keith Brandtjen of Seattle.

(Saerom Yoo writes for the Statesman Journal of Salem, Ore.)

  • Pingback: Doctor who championed right to die ends his life | Christian News Agency()

  • Pingback: Doctor who championed right to die ends his life - mosaicversemosaicverse()

  • Dominic

    Since my real opinion was deleted, I’ll try the politically correct version:

    What a great symbol Rasmussen is for the death with dignity cause that is sweeping our nation. Now the depressed and those who decide that their life is pointless can point to this Dr. as their guide when they kill themselves. Bless him and his enlightened view of America’s future. No more sick people, no more elderly people, and no more confused people. Medical costs should nosedive and funeral parlors will be on speed call.

  • Too bad he left a law in place that puts us all at risk.

    Note these loopholes and more work with each other to eviscerate intended safeguards.
    By all these OR model laws all family members are not required to be contacted, hold that thought. A single predatory heir is allowed to steer the sign up and then execute the lethal process without a witness.
    A witness is not required to confirm that the dose was so called “self administered” (you remember this was one of their lead selling points).
    Even as the law provides immunity for all involved and demands the falsification of the death certificate (impossible to track trends for good public policy) it actually prohibits a public inquiry of any kind (remember the family members who were not contacted, no recourse for them). A straight up murder for money can slide right through. It is Dangerous public policy. As if that is not enough, in 2015 they added another black hole to the bogus signup process with “someone who claims…

  • Here is something sweet for everyone, check out MusidandMemories dot org

  • dmj76

    If I had brain cancer, G-d forbid, I would be grateful for this option – not that I would necessarily take it, but it would be a comfort to know it was available.

    Cancer is horrible. I know the New Testament teaches that suffering is good for you, but as a non-fundamentalist that does not impact my views.