A new law signed this week by Vermont’s governor updates the state’s policies around medical aid in dying — something only 10 states and Washington, D.C. currently allow, according to this list from the advocacy group Compassion & Choices.
Diagnosed with terminal illnesses, many patients wonder for months or longer, “What will my death look like?” or ask questions like, “Will I still be conscious and able to talk with my loved ones in my final weeks, and how much pain will I have to endure?”
Ellen McKay Jewett’s late husband Willem, who had an aggressive form of cancer, asked himself all those questions and more, she said, before he used Vermont’s Act 39: the Patient Choice at End of Life Law. The law enabled Willem to obtain a prescription for medications he could take himself when he decided it was time to die.
“He was courageous at the end,” McKay Jewett recalled. “When there is no more treatment available, you want your loved one to say, ‘Okay, I’m done — I’m ready.’ We’re lucky in Vermont.”
Jewett was a former state lawmaker from Ripton, who in 2013 helped pass that very law he’d end up using.
Just days before his death in January, he reached out to old colleagues to say the rules needed updating.
When time is already short, a two-day waiting period at the end of the process needed to go, Jewett told current members of the Vermont Legislature. He also recommended clearer legal protections for pharmacists and caregivers, and wanted patients to be able to have appointments around this issue via video telemedicine.
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“For someone who’s in a really debilitated condition, that’s a much much kinder process,” said Betsy Walkerman, the president of the advocacy group Patient Choices Vermont, referring to the telemedicine measure.
Walkerman emphasized there are still layers in place dying people who are Vermont residents must go through before getting those drugs, including making multiple requests from two doctors.
The Vermont Department of Health provides more detailed information about Act 39 on its website.
Walkerman said Patient Choices Vermont is grateful to lawmakers for passing the changes and to Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, for signing them into law.
"I think it says that we’re compassionate," Walkerman said of Vermont policies. "And I think it says that we really value individual choice and determination."
The Vermont Right to Life Committee remains opposed, said the organization’s longtime executive director, Mary Hahn Beerworth.
VRLC testified against the legislation when it was making its way through the Vermont State House.
"For them to take the safeguards out is disturbing, to say the least," Hahn Beerworth said in an interview Thursday with NECN & NBC10 Boston. "We felt this was a wrong time to expand it, and it was a wrong concept to begin with."
Hahn Beerworth also argued the process to pass the updates to the law felt too rushed to her.
Loved ones of Willem Jewett, however, are certain the former policymaker’s final service to Vermonters will help others suffering from the gravest of conditions find peaceful deaths — on their own terms.
"He was a remarkable guy," Ellen McKay Jewett said of her late husband. "Never will I stop saying his name."