Legislator dies using medical suicide law he helped pass

Jan 19, 2022, 12:56 PM | Updated: Jan 20, 2022, 6:48 am

A former Vermont legislator and House majority leader has died with the help of a law he himself helped pass that allows the terminally ill to end their own lives, his wife said.

Willem Jewett died Jan. 12 at his home in Ripton at age 58, said his wife, Ellen McKay Jewett. He was diagnosed with mucosal melanoma over a year ago. In the days before his death, he supported changes to the 2013 law to make it easier for terminally ill people to navigate and get a prescription, VTDigger first reported.

“It is very Willem fashion to still be pushing for legislation that he believed in and using his ability to advocate for people,” his daughter Abigail Jewett said Wednesday.

Jewett, a lawyer and a competitive cyclist, served in the Vermont House from 2003 to 2016, where he was known for his energy, humor and intelligence — and for riding his bicycle more than 50 miles to the Statehouse for the annual Earth Day ride. The Democrat became assistant majority leader in 2011 and later majority leader.

“He lived life as if there wasn’t a moment to spare,” said House Speaker Shap Smith. In the Legislature, he was great to work with, very smart and “definitely had a feisty side,” Smith said.

When the House gave final approval to the bill in 2013 after a day of debate in which members told stories of their own loved ones’ deaths, Jewett, then majority leader, said: “I’ve listened to all these stories, very personal stories, and I respect every single one of them.”

Under the legislation, he said, “we all get to remain true to our guideposts at the end of our life.”

Jewett was critical in helping to organize a strategy on the bill, ensuring the House had the votes and then working with leadership to get support from senators, Smith said.

Along with others, “his support was really critical,” said Betsy Walkerman, president of Patient Choices Vermont, a nonprofit organization. “He’s very proud of this bill,” she said.

Jewett reached out to the group Dec. 29 about his own experience with the law and proposed changes now under consideration. Walkerman spoke to him by phone Jan. 7, five days before he died.

He “just wanted to add his voice, which is incredibly powerful because he has this dual role as a legislator and a patient, a person near the end of life, who’s making choices,” she said.

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Legislator dies using medical suicide law he helped pass