A specter is haunting Washington, according to D.C. Council member H.R. Crawford. He says that fear has spread among the city's blacks, old people and ministers since the D.C. Council passed the "Death With Dignity Act."
"You don't understand," Crawford told a somewhat skeptical meeting of the American Association of Retired Persons recently. "There are different communities in this city and the minority community views this bill as a threat, something that could be used not only to get rid of black people but to clear out homes for the aged.
"We've got abortion on one end and now this on the other end," said the Democrat from Ward 7 in far Northeast and Southeast Washington. "They (the elderly) want to know if you're going to come after them next."
Crawford has introduced a bill to revoke the law, which allows adults to declare in advance that, if they become hopelessly comatose or in terminally ill condition, doctors should not use machines or otherwise take steps "to artificially prolong the dying process." The repeal effort is supported by the D.C. chapter of Moral Majority.
In the past, there was neither a standard definiton of death in city law nor a provision for a person hospitalized in Washington to say that he wanted to be taken off life sustaining machines.
However, when the council late last year approved the "Death With Dignity" bill, officially known as the Natural Death Act of 1981, it also passed companion legislation defining death as either irreversible failure of the heart and lungs or irreversible failure of all brain functions.
Crawford was the only council member to vote against the two bills, and when he spoke to the AARP meeting he said that most people in his ward do not understand the bill.
Some people fear that the measure might permit doctors to decide that some people, such as minorities, are not worth the effort and medical expense necessary to save their lives after a serious accident or illness, Crawford said.
Dr. Lewis Biben, immediate past president of the D.C. Medical Society, told the audience that the fears Crawford was referring to were baseless.
"I am white," the doctor said in a later interview with a reporter, "and I look upon Crawford's statement as a bigoted remark. I don't think blacks, minorities, the elderly are saying those things. I'm Jewish and I'm very sensitive to the issue. But his objections are not based on an informed assessment of the law. What he is doing is shouting out publicity grabbing statements.
"Minorities, regardlesss of race, religion or color," said Biben,"can be told about the bill if it's true that they don't understand it."
Council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), who introduced the two bills, said the only objections to the laws that she has heard have come from Crawford and representatives of the D.C. chapter of Moral Majority.
"This bill is in effect in 12 states with no such problem affecting minorities," Shackleton said. "Mr. Crawford is the only one I hear talking about it. . . . There are so many provisions to protect people, if you are in a coma or anything else, and if you want to revoke the will at any time you can do that."
Crawford is calm about criticism of his opposition to the law. His only concern, he said in an interview days after the forum, is that ministers and minorites who don't like the law get a chance to speak out against it so their concern can be dealt with as amendments to the law. He said he does not think the measure will be repealed.
"My job," said Crawford, "is to make sure my constituents and the churches have a voice in this government, and that's what I am doing."