Supporters of Proposition 161, the initiative permitting physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia for some terminally ill patients, had every reason to be optimistic.
As they gathered signatures earlier this year to put their measure on the Nov. 3 ballot, they knew several polls showed that Californians overwhelmingly favored the idea of allowing doctors to help end the lives of hopelessly ill patients who choose suicide.
A 1991 poll conducted for the pro-euthanasia Hemlock Society by the Roper Organization found supporters of the concept outnumbered the opposition by more than 3 to 1. The ratio generally held up regardless of the age, religion, income or education level of those responding.
But today, the initiative’s backers fear their support is eroding. They are short of cash in an emotional campaign that pits them against a well-financed opposition. While the No on 161 organization has begun a statewide radio ad campaign, the Yes on Proposition 161 group has relied on free time on television and radio talk shows.
In what has become a heated battle, both sides have behaved at times more like mud-slinging politicians than thoughtful contestants in a high-minded ethical debate.
The anti-161 side has tried to portray the initiative as a flawed, even kooky, measure masterminded by the leadership of a “ghoulish” Hemlock Society.
Referring to a long and growing list of opponents to the measure, including the American Cancer Society and the California Medical Assn., No on 161 spokeswoman Grace Provenzano said: “It’s the civilized world versus the Hemlock Society.”
The Yes on 161 campaign keeps pointing out that opponents received financial support from “Roman Catholic sources” and accuses the Catholic Church of trying to impose its view of euthanasia on others.
“There would not be a campaign against 161 of any significance if the Catholic hierarchy were not leading the charge,” said Jack Nicholl, campaign manager for Yes on Proposition 161.
Lending credence to the argument are the sizable donations Catholic groups have made to the measure’s opponents. In addition, bishops have called on parishioners throughout the state to contribute to the campaign to defeat the measure.
But, Provenzano says, the anti-161 campaign also has been reaching out successfully to Protestant, Jewish and Islamic groups and to charitable and health groups as well. “It’s inaccurate to say that our coalition is Catholic and right-wing,” Provenzano said.
Opponents say supporters of 161 have alliances they need to explain too--namely, the Hemlock Society.
The authors of the initiative say the Hemlock Society helped place the measure on the ballot. But they are careful to distance themselves from some views taken by Hemlock’s founder and former director, Derek Humphry.
Humphry, a journalist who once worked for The Times, is the author of the best-selling “Final Exit,” a practical guide to committing suicide that lists fatal doses for a number of commonly prescribed drugs.
The co-authors of the initiative, Los Angeles attorneys Robert Risley and Michael H. White, say they began work on their proposal before they knew of Humphry or Hemlock. But since then both lawyers have joined the organization, saying they believe in its aims.
The men insist their campaign committee is independent of Hemlock and its chapters. Humphry, the Hemlock founder, agrees. “I’m the driving spirit, but I don’t boss people,” he said recently.
In his book “Final Exit,” which has sold 600,000 copies, Humphry describes helping three people die--his first wife, his brother and his father-in-law.
Risley wants to distance the initiative campaign from Humphry’s writing. “His self-help book, we wish it wasn’t there. . . . The legitimate problem with the book is that it can get into the hands of younger people, who are not terminal,” Risley said.
Risley said he started writing a statute to permit physician-assisted suicide following the death of his wife, Darlena, from ovarian cancer in 1984.
During his wife’s two-year struggle against the disease, Risley said, he once brought up the possibility of helping her commit suicide if the pain became unbearable. The issue was never raised again, he said.
Soon after she died in the Bahamas, where she was receiving unorthodox treatment, Risley and White--who were law partners--drafted a measure to give terminally ill patients the option of physician-assisted suicide.
In 1987, after efforts to get their proposal introduced in the Legislature had failed, Risley and White launched their first initiative. Despite last-minute help from the Hemlock Society, they fell far short of the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot in 1988. Their group, Americans Against Human Suffering, ran up more than $200,000 in debts.
Last year, after eliminating the debt, the two decided to try again--this time calling their group Californians Against Human Suffering.
Just as the link with the Hemlock Society has given opponents of Proposition 161 a point of attack, so has the continuing activity of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a Michigan pathologist who says he has assisted the suicides of five women. Only one of those women would have qualified as terminally ill and been entitled to a doctor’s help under Proposition 161.
Because Kevorkian has long been licensed in California, the No on 161 committee has charged--without any justification--that Kevorkian is likely to “set up death clinics in California if Proposition 161 passes.”
Both sides in the campaign boast of support from AIDS organizations.
Later this month, the board of AIDS Project Los Angeles will be voting on a recommendation that the organization oppose the initiative. But the agency’s deputy director, Mark Senac, said he and others who work with AIDS patients believe that the terminally ill should have the option of ending their lives. “There’s some sentiment that a flawed bill is better than no bill,” he said.
Given continued support for the idea of physician-aided suicide in public opinion polls, opponents will have to work hard if they hope to defeat the initiative.
The latest No on 161 campaign finance report shows that in the three months ending Sept. 30, the initiative’s opponents were able to raise $1.5 million--10 times the $146,000 raised by the pro-161 committee in the same period.
The ability of the opposition to raise large sums of money quickly has the initiative’s authors worried. They are expecting a deluge of last-minute advertising, but they won’t have the money to respond.
Initiative co-author White said: “I feel like the guy standing on the beach waiting for that hurricane to hit Hawaii. . . . I can see it coming but there’s not a damn thing I can do.”
Proposition 161 would allow physicians in California to end the lives of terminally ill patients who request the help. Under the measure, any mentally competent adult could sign a document authorizing physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia. Two witnesses would be required. Before the document could be implemented, the patient’s doctor and another physician would have to agree that the patient had an incurable condition and no more than six months to live. The patient would have to make the request more than once. No doctor or nurse would be required to participate, but those who do would be protected from criminal and civil suits. No other state or country in the world has an explicit law permitting active euthanasia, although the Netherlands tolerates it under court-set guidelines. Opponents say the measure “has no real safeguards.” They object to the lack of witnesses to the final request and failure to require a delay before suicide is carried out.