PROPOSITION 161 : Outcome of Death Measure May Rest on 11th-Hour Ads

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Opponents of Proposition 161, the initiative that would allow terminally ill patients to choose doctor-assisted suicide and euthanasia, are taking to the airways today with last-minute ads intended to raise fears about the measure.

Dominated by the chilling image of a hypodermic needle filled for lethal injection, two of the television commercials use short phrases like "death by mistake" and "no witnesses, no one will know" that are calculated to frighten off Californians--even those who generally favor the idea of helping terminally ill patients who ask to die.

With far less money to spend, the measure's supporters launched a radio-only campaign, which labels opponents as a "group of powerful religious zealots" willing to distort the truth to get their way. The reference is apparently to various Catholic groups that have been the financial mainstay of the opposition campaign.

In their broadcast ads, both sides make use of actual patients voicing their views of the measure, which would make California the first state in the nation to legalize voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill.

With recent polls showing the outcome too close to call, the ad campaigns in the final days before Tuesday's vote could prove decisive.

Although the Catholic Church and other leaders of the No on 161 campaign oppose any form of doctor-assisted death on moral grounds, the opposition ads stress only that the measure lacks safeguards.

Supporters counter that the initiative has enough protections without interfering with a patient's right to privacy and a death with dignity.

One of the opposition's 30-second television spots states that "(Proposition) 161 allows physician-assisted suicide in secret, with no witnesses, no family notification, no psychological exam and no medical specialists." Whispering voices in the background assert: "No witnesses. No one will know."

In fact, the measure leaves it up to the patient to decide who would be present and who would be notified. The initiative allows the physician to request a psychological evaluation, but the patient need not comply.

The measure requires that the patient's doctor and another licensed physician certify that the patient will likely die from the disease within six months--but neither doctor would have to be a specialist.

A second television spot emphasizes the possibility that physicians can be wrong about predicting life expectancy: "If a diagnosis is wrong, someone you know may choose physician-assisted death by mistake. Death by mistake." In two other ads, patients who were diagnosed as terminal but who remain alive years later argue that they might have asked for a lethal injection had Proposition 161 been in place.

The proponents are airing a single 30-second radio advertisement, introduced by Dr. Griffith Thomas, a Los Angeles physician-attorney who has served on the joint committee on biomedical ethics of the county bar and medical associations.

Griffith tells listeners that the opposition will "spend millions, even distort the truth to get their way."

Then a patient identified only as Emily says: "I'm dying. They've tried chemotherapy and surgery; nothing worked. I don't want to suffer like this until the end."

Though the ads of both sides pack a powerful emotional kick, voters are far more likely to see and hear from the No on 161 campaign than from the proponents.

The anti-Proposition 161 committee has raised $2.8 million since June--the largest amounts coming from Roman Catholic bishops, Catholic hospitals and church-related groups such as the Knights of Columbus. In the same period, the yes side has raised $215,000.

The proponents have only enough cash available--about $55,000--for their radio ad to be aired three or four times a day on a few stations in Los Angeles and San Diego.

"It's like spitting into the wind," said Yes on Proposition 161 spokesman Jack Nicholl.

The initiative would allow mentally competent adults to sign written directives authorizing a doctor to administer a fatal dose of medication or provide the means for suicide. The document would have to be signed by two witnesses unrelated to the patient. It could be revoked at any time.

The initiative does not spell out a waiting period for carrying out a patient's request to die; it only requires that the request be an "enduring" one that is "expressed on more than one occasion." Nor does the proposition identify methods to be used to help patients die.

Both sides have courted support from a variety of organizations. The proponents have endorsements from the pro-euthanasia Hemlock Society, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Gray Panthers and the National Organization for Women of California.

Opponents boast endorsements from 135 different organizations, including the California Medical Assn., the American Cancer Society, the California Assn. of Hospitals and Health Systems, and the state Republican Party.

The two campaigns have been battling for support from organizations that represent AIDS patients. Because of the nature of the disease--those who contract it are often young and can expect multiple complications--there is general support for the option of physician-assisted suicide. But AIDS groups have been split about Proposition 161.

Being Alive, an organization providing services to those with AIDS, has endorsed the measure. Torie Osborn, executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, is on the advisory board of the Yes on 161 campaign.

However, the state's largest AIDS patient support agency, AIDS Project Los Angeles, was expected Tuesday night to consider a statement supporting voluntary euthanasia but criticizing Proposition 161.

Politicians have not been eager to jump into the fray. No major candidate for California's two U.S. Senate seats has made Proposition 161 a campaign issue, and the measure has not come up in many local races.

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