Legacy of hope


To hear David Webber talk, he’d have you believe anybody could have done it. "If you were there and you were me, you would have done the same thing. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time," he says.

In Webber’s case, the right thing to do in 1988, when he was a young, trailblazing attorney, was to establish the nation’s only independent public-interest law firm dedicated to the issues of AIDS and HIV.

The unassuming 48-year-old founder of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania helped launch quite a legacy. Some 15 years later, the organization has tallied a string of impressive legal victories known throughout the country.

In August 1989, attorney Andy Chirls of Wolf Block, an AIDS Law Project cooperating attorney, litigated the first AIDS discrimination case before a jury in Philadelphia. Chirls successfully represented a mother whose son died of AIDS against a funeral home director who had refused to bring her son into the funeral parlor. Instead, the director kept the body in a hearse during the wake — with the family thinking all the while their loved one was in the closed coffin.

In a settlement with Rite Aid in December 1994, the drugstore chain agreed to stop supplying Pennsylvania employers with reports of employees’ drug prescriptions, including AIDS medications. And several months ago, the AIDS Law Project settled a case involving a dentist who had refused to treat a Montgomery County man with AIDS.

Since its inception, the AIDS Law Project has defended more than 20,000 people free of charge and has educated more than 24,000 others on AIDS-related legal issues. Each year, the organization receives more than 1,800 calls for assistance.

Webber, who now lives in South Philadelphia, grew up in Coopersburg, Lehigh County, as the son of the town’s only doctor. He graduated cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in 1976 with a degree in music and received a law degree from Temple University in 1980. Webber still performs professionally as a double bassist.

After college, he worked for law firms and then struck out on his own. In the mid-’80s, the attorney established a relationship with the AIDS Task Force, which would give him referrals of clients who had legal issues concerning their disease. The work became too much for him to handle alone, so Webber founded the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania.

One of the founder’s first actions was to secure funding through foundation-sponsored grants. Many of those early grants continue to fund the project today, he says.

But, an obvious question begs: Why would an attorney choose AIDS as a field of practice? In the early days of this epidemic, nobody was representing clients with AIDS, Webber explains. "It was a very new area of the law. The law was not as clear as we would have liked. There were a lot of questions: ‘Was it OK to fire someone with AIDS?’ It was a very exciting area of the law to get into and to advocate very strongly for the rights of people with AIDS."

Since 1987, Webber has lived on the 1200 block of Wharton Street with his wife, Felicia. The couple has two children, a 5-year-old son and a 16-month-old daughter.

Today, Webber has his own law practice, but continues his work with the AIDS Law Project. He still handles claims involving HIV, but also focuses on employment law.

The attorney is very selective about the clients he works with in his private practice. "Most of the cases I take involve some really significant legal issue — that they may set a precedent. There is something really unusual about the cases that I take," he says.

Webber’s pioneering role in HIV law has led attorneys around the country working in the field to seek him out for consultations. And, he does a good bit of writing on the subject. The attorney is editor and contributing author for the third edition of AIDS and the Law, the leading treatise in its field, first published in 1997.

Webber’s articles have been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Public Policy Journal, among others.

He has taught "AIDS and the Law" at Temple University, and was an instructor at Cabrini College and Villanova University. The attorney also served on the faculty of the Pennsylvania AIDS Education and Training Center.

Since more than one-third of AIDS patients are injection drug users, Webber is a staunch and outspoken advocate of syringe exchange — making clean needles available.

Opponents of such a program argue that making syringes available only serves to support and promote drug use.

"Denying access to syringes does not reduce drug use," Webber insists.

Instead, drug users will be driven to desperation and share needles, which puts them at risk for contracting AIDS or hepatitis, he says.

Pennsylvania is one of only six states that requires a prescription to purchase syringes, Webber notes. Evidence points to a reduction in AIDS in some states where syringes are available without prescription, he says.

In Philadelphia alone, there are 55,000 injection drug users, Webber says.

He feels society has come to view drug use as a law-enforcement issue, but he believes it to be more of a public health problem.

"Nationally, there are about 40,000 new infections a year with HIV," Webber notes. In the ’80s, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, the disease was at the forefront of the news. Webber believes that was largely due to the disease’s fear factor at the time.

"Because the initial fear has subsided, people sort of take it for granted now that people have AIDS and we don’t have to worry. We can shake hands, we can share phones in the workplace, and you’re not going to catch AIDS," he notes.

In the early days, the disease took lives much faster. Someone diagnosed with AIDS would die a year later, Webber says.

Then, around 1997, a group of more effective treatments was introduced. As a result, the mortality rate began to drop for people diagnosed with AIDS.

Now advocates like Webber find themselves fighting to ensure the public doesn’t forget about the public health issue.

"There is a kind of complacency because HIV and AIDS is no longer seen as a real killer disease — but it is," he says. "It is still a big public health problem and very costly."