The California Humane and Dignified Death Initiative
For a brief time last spring, it seemed possible--even likely--that the fall political season, almost certain to produce a stultifying presidential race, could involve a clamorous public debate in California over one of the most provocative questions in contemporary bioethics. By the time the campaign period actually began, however, the wrenching preoccupation with legalizing euthanasia in the nation's most populous state had failed to materialize. The electorate was left to the somnolence of Bush, Quayle, Dukakis, and Bentsen.
To observers far afield from California--and even some in the state--in early 1988, it would have seemed a most unlikely result: A ballot initiative to legalize the provision by doctors of active euthanasia services would attract just 130,000 signatures to its qualifying petitions. The total would be less than a third of the number required to place it on the statewide November ballot despite unanimity among opinion polls finding as many as 70 percent of Californians supported the concept.
This seemingly contradictory reality would confound even some of California's most insightful politicians. In early April, less than two months before the signature deadline, Willie Brown, speaker of the California Assembly and one of the state's most perceptive political leaders, flatly predicted that the initiative would qualify and be passed. Medical-legal experts as a group prepared for what they anticipated would be the World Series of bioethics. Here it most certainly was: The first opportunity for either the de facto or de jure practice of euthanasia to gain offical sanction outside of the stronghold of the Netherlands.
But it simply didn't happen. And for bioethics scholars, it became a curious postmortem. The sponsor of the initiative, a little-known group called Americans Against Human Suffering, organized by Los Angeles trial lawyer Robert Risley who, ironically, devotes about half of his practice to medical malpractice defense work, declared its intention to redouble its fund-raising and organizational activities and return to the fight in 1990.
The Hemlock Society, meanwhile, joined in a vow to work to get the measure not just on the California ballot in two years but to place it simultaneously before the electorates of Florida, Oregon, and Washington, too. Having stated that objective, however, the Society, in mid-summer, relocated its headquarters from Los Angeles to rural Oregon, a step whose effect on the visibility and presence of issues Hemlock champions remains to be seen.
Some elements of the right-to-die movement clearly were concerned with the prospects of success in California, too, and the side effects for the larger movement. The Society for the Right to Die, in fact, avoided being drawn into the affair, declining to take a position on it.
The Humane and Dignified Death Initiative had been widely believed within and outside the state to be a creature of the Hemlock Society, but Risley had kept his distance. He accepted two loans from Hemlock, one of which he reported later was not fully repaid, but the two groups eliminated some common directors to emphasize their separateness.
Provisions of the Initiative
As drafted, the California initiative would have been a logical extension of existing state living will legislation. To exercise the right to be killed by a doctor, a patient would have to be certifiably terminal. A durable power of attorney would be executed in which the patient conveyed authority to order his or her death to someone else in the event a comatose or otherwise mentally disabling condition ensued.
The provisions of the initiative would not be of any benefit to someone subsequently rendered mentally disabled but who had not, having been officially certified as terminal, executed the power of attorney in advance. …