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Ex-lawmaker battling cancer uses legislation he helped pass to end life

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A former Vermont lawmaker battling a rare cancer has died using a law that he helped pass that allows the terminally ill to end their own lives, his family said.

Willem Jewett — who served in the Vermont House from 2003 through 2016, including two years as majority leader — died on Jan. 12 at his home in Ripton, according to his wife, Ellen McKay Jewett. He was 58.

Jewett’s “remarkably full” life was “cut short” by mucosal melanoma, a cancer of the mucosal membrane, according to his obituary. He was diagnosed in summer 2020 and began his efforts last month to end his life using legislation he helped pass nearly a decade earlier, the outlet reported.

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Just two days before he died, Jewett said he wanted to address restrictions on Act 39, also known as Vermont’s Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act, including “completely meaningless” waiting periods and multiple in-person requests.

“If anyone wants to suggest that I, or anyone else who’s gotten to this stage, hasn’t thought long and deeply about this, and if they’ve made the request, hasn’t done it with information, or at the end of the day, conviction — they’re crazy,” Jewett told VTDigger. “What do people think we do when we’re sick in bed?”

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To receive state assistance under the law, a patient must be diagnosed with a terminal illness and have six months or less to live. Two in-person requests at least 15 days apart to a doctor are also required, as well as a trip to a consulting physician and another written request, VTDigger reported.

The patient must then wait 48 hours to obtain a prescription. Jewett’s palliative doctor confirmed he used a drug obtained through Act 39 to end his life while surrounded by friends and family.

His obituary said Jewett, an attorney and avid cyclist, was a well-liked figure at Vermont’s Statehouse. He rode his bike more than 50 miles to the building each year during the annual Earth Day ride.

“During the last year of his life, even during rigorous cancer treatment, Willem continued to seek adventures of all varieties,” his obituary said. “Annual group camping trips to Kingdom Trails for mountain biking were highlights through his last summer.”

Just four months ago, Jewett biked 100 miles with members of his cycling team while accompanied by his brother and daughter, raising more than $20,000 for cancer research.

A memorial for Jewett will be held sometime in the spring, the obituary said. He’s survived by his wife Ellen, daughters Abigail and Anneke and brother Joe Jewett.

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“They and other held his hands while he traveled out of the physical world on Jan. 12, comfortably and peacefully in his own home,” his obituary continued. “[Jewett’s] indelible memory will be left with so many.”

Jewett’s former colleagues, meanwhile, are now considering amending Act 39 to make it easier for people to use. Ten states and the District of Columbia allow terminally ill patients to get prescriptions to end their life, VTDigger reported.

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

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