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John A. Pridonoff, 64; Backed Right to Die

December 06, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

John A. Pridonoff, a grief and crisis counselor and former executive director of the Hemlock Society who supported passage of Oregon's controversial Right to Die law, has died. He was 64.

Pridonoff died Nov. 24 in Sherman Oaks of heart failure.

When the Eugene, Ore.-based Hemlock Society tapped Pridonoff in 1992, directors hoped his professional background would repair the organization's damaged reputation.

The society had been formed in 1980 to advocate a legal right to die for terminally ill patients and legal sanction for assistance by doctors or other caregivers. Its founders were British-born journalist Derek Humphry and Humphry's second wife, Ann, who had written the book "Jean's Way," describing how Humphry had helped his cancer-stricken first wife end her life.

Humphry's second book, "Final Exit," became a best-seller and helped focus nationwide attention on what advocates consider the right to die. But the book also brought vitriolic criticism from people who called it a manual for suicide. Shortly before Pridonoff's selection, Ann Humphry, upset over the breakup of the couple's marriage, followed the book's guidelines in committing suicide.

Pridonoff, while continuing to support Derek Humphry, sought to refocus the society as an educational, rather than a political, resource for those working to enact laws establishing a right to die. From the society's Oregon headquarters, he was instrumental in the passage of the Oregon law.

He wanted a U.S. constitutional amendment permitting what he called "death with dignity" across the country.

Instead, he provided information and advocacy for state attempts, watching Washington voters defeat a measure in 1991 and California reject a similar initiative in 1992.

Pridonoff's views on patients' rights, including the right to end life in carefully delineated cases, stemmed from his extensive personal experience with terminal medical problems.

"I have been faced too many times with instances of people dying, stripped of their dignity, integrity and sense of self-respect," Pridonoff told The Times in 1992.

"It's not that I feel terminally ill people should do this but that terminally ill should be able to discuss this without the intrusion of organized religion or organized government beyond the appropriate safety structures within the law."

Born in Los Angeles, Pridonoff earned a bachelor's in psychology at Cal State L.A., later added a doctorate and also obtained a master's degree in theology from the Colgate Rochester Divinity School.

He was ordained as a minister in the Congregationalist Christian Church, but combined his training in theology with psychology and worked in counseling.

Pridonoff said he first became interested in the right-to-die issue during his student days when a college classmate suffered a painful, lingering death from leukemia.

Thanatology -- the study of medical, psychological and social problems related to death -- became his focus as he established himself in counseling and volunteered as a chaplain at Grossmont Hospital in San Diego.

For more than 25 years, Pridonoff was executive director of the Counseling Center in San Diego, a nonprofit providing trauma, grief, pastoral and crisis intervention counseling to medical professionals and other caregivers. He also edited the Forum, a national newsletter of the Assn. for Death Education and Counseling.

Pridonoff interacted continually with terminally ill patients, their families and the ministers and caregivers who helped them, and earned particular praise for his work with AIDS victims.

In 1992, he was honored by then San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor for his involvement in the psychological, emotional and spiritual care of those near death.

Pridonoff, who remained single, is survived by his mother, Josephine; one brother, Carl; and two sisters, Erica Pridonoff-Zacarias and Sally Pridonoff West.

The family has asked that memorial donations be sent to the John Pridonoff Memorial Fund, c/o the Grossmont Hospital Foundation, 5555 Grossmont Center Drive, La Mesa, CA 91942.

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