The D.C. City Council yesterday gave final approval to a so-called "death with dignity" bill that would allow individuals to sign statements declaring they would prefer to die rather than be sustained indefinitely on life-support systems.
The bill had sparked strong opposition in recent weeks from religious leaders and others, including the Catholic archbishop of Washington, the Baptist Ministers Conference and the D.C. Moral Majority.
The Rev. Cleveland Sparrow, who helped coordinate the D.C. Moral Majority's successful campaign to overturn the D.C. sexual assault bill in the House of Representatives two weeks ago, denounced the measure yesterday. But he said he doubted his group would launch another nationwide lobbying blitz because the death bill "doesn't have the effect on the general populace as the other bill."
"This is a matter that we can handle at the next election," Sparrow said yesterday. "When the council takes an action such as this that is so stupid and so obviously opposed to what the people want, we'll just go to the people . . . and have them removed from office. This action will serve to haunt them."
The opposition to the bill by the same coalition of forces that united to successfully lobby against the sex bill had spread concern among some council members who feared that the measure might meet a similar fate in an increasingly hostile Congress. But those fears were dismissed yesterday by council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), who shepherded the death bill through the council.
"This bill is so different" from the sex bill, she said. "It doesn't have the kind of things in it that can grab the Congress the way the other one did." She added that "it's a compassionate measure. It doesn't interfere with people's lives. It's allowing people to make their own decisions about whether they want to allow nature to take its course."
The bill, which passed on voice vote, now goes to Mayor Marion Barry for his signature. He has given no indication as to his feelings about the bill.
The measure drew objections yesterday from several council members, including a Bible-quoting H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) and Nadine Winter (D-Ward 6), who said her brother was once "given up for dead" only to live for nine more years.
Similar to existing laws in 10 states, the bill is aimed at saving families, physicians and dying patients from a painful and undesired struggle to maintain life. Patients 18 years or older could sign an affidavit declaring that, in the event that two doctors certify that they are terminally ill, they be allowed to die rather than be artifically sustained.
The affidavits would be binding on physicians who would face a $5,000 fine and license suspension or revocation for refusing to honor such a wish. Moreover, a doctor who felt he could not comply in good conscience with such an affidavit would be required to transfer the patient to another physician.
Supporters of the bill insist they have built into the measure certain "controls" to prevent its abuses by doctors or relatives. For example, the affidavit must be signed in the presense of two witnesses who are not related or entitled to any portion of the patient's estate. And the patient can, at any time, revoke the affidavit, whether verbally or in writing, regardless of the patient's "mental state."
These controls, nevertheless, failed to satisfy council opponents such as Crawford who quoted the biblical admonition "Thou shalt not kill" and argued that the bill "would allow for certain abuses that were not intended by the Maker."
Crawford acknowledged that the bill would only apply to individuals who had voluntarily signed the affidavits. But the bill could be "misinterpreted," he said. "Anything is possible."
In other action yesterday, the council approved the issuing of $30 million in revenue bonds for construction work at George Washington University.