In Memory of Betsy Van Dorn

April 11, 2023

Authored by Kim Callinan, Compassion & Choices president and CEO

Professional headshot of Betsy Van Dorn

Betsy Van Dorn

In September 2000, the World Federation of Right to Die Societies held its biannual conference in Boston. At the time, Barbara Coombs Lee was the CEO of our predecessor organization, Compassion in Dying. After Barbara finished her presentation, a petite woman with razor wit and twinkling eyes introduced herself:

“I would like to help Compassion in Dying raise money.”

This was the first of many times Betsy Van Dorn lifted up our mission, our movement and our spirits. For the next two decades, Betsy served the movement with purpose and conviction,  first on the board of directors of Compassion & Choices for nearly a decade and as the development chair for four years.

With her infectious enthusiasm (“We have such interesting supporters, how can you not want to get to know them?”), she inspired her fellow board members to embrace their role as ambassadors. And with her characteristic pragmatism and playfulness (“There is no mission without margin!”), she soon had the board hosting events, calling donors and raising money.

In 2021, when the Compassion & Choices Action Network (CCAN) opened a new chapter in its history and began electioneering, we very quickly formed a new board of directors — and once again, Betsy responded to our call to service. ( “That makes good sense to me; sign me up.”)  And that we did, first as the board chair of CCAN and then as the chair and treasurer of the Massachusetts Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee.

Betsy’s leadership was not simply about the positions she held, the money she raised or the results she amassed; it was also about the lives she touched. She had an uncanny ability to connect with people. Her sense of humor, love of limericks and breadth of knowledge certainly made her an interesting conversationalist; however, her “secret sauce” was her genuine curiosity and concern for others. When you spoke with Betsy — whether it was once or a dozen times — it was a comfortable and calming interchange. She listened intently, and you always felt heard.

Throughout the time Betsy served on the CCAN board, she was suffering with and from multiple painful and debilitating conditions. Despite her deteriorating health, she remained committed to our work and hopeful that one of the many treatments and interventions she was trying would ease her pain and restore her health. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

“During the final months of Betsy’s life as her health deteriorated, the work that she did with Compassion & Choices was one of the primary ways she derived meaning in her life,” said Sarah Smith, Betsy’s sister. “In fact, she continued to share about the good and effective work of Compassion & Choices, right up until the final minutes of her life. She was a woman with conviction and clarity.”

Betsy had a purposeful and peaceful exit on her own terms, with tremendous peace of mind and absolutely no regrets.

“My mom died with the same determination and clarity [with which] she lived,” said Peter Van Dorn, Betsy’s eldest son and a Compassion & Choices executive volunteer. “She did not want an obituary, a memorial service or any fanfare. She simply wanted continued focus on support for end-of-life autonomy and Compassion & Choices. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a gift in her name.

Betsy’s conviction was unrelenting, and her impact on this movement was immeasurable. I feel privileged to have known her and blessed to carry on this work in her honor.

The Compassion & Choices family comprises two organizations: Compassion & Choices (the 501(c)(3)), whose focus is expanding access, public education and litigation; and Compassion & Choices Action Network (the 501(c)(4)), whose focus is legislative work at the federal and state levels.

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