SACRAMENTO — 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.