Californians may get a chance this year to vote on a proposal most politicians won't touch with a 10-foot pole: euthanasia.

The proposed ballot initiative would allow terminally ill patients to ask for and receive a doctor's "aid in dying." If it became law, a doctor could legally prescribe and administer a lethal overdose of drugs -- such as narcotics or barbiturates -- to any such patient who requested it.

Under current law, a doctor who did that could be prosecuted for murder or for assisting a suicide.

The controversial California measure moves the debate on "death with dignity" to a new stage. In the past, the focus has been on passive euthanasia, in which a patient forgoes artificial life support and lets an illness take its course. The California proposal would legalize active euthanasia, permitting a patient to ask for and receive another person's help in dying.

Called the Humane and Dignified Death Act, the five-page proposal is being promoted by the lobbying arm of the Hemlock Society, a Los Angeles-based group that advocates voluntary euthanasia.

The bill, said Derek Humphry, the Hemlock Society's founder and executive director, "would permit dying patients to ask their doctor to help them die. Any doctor who did so would be free and clear of criminal, civil or administrative liability."

No specific method of euthanasia is mentioned in the proposed law, which defines "aid in dying" as any medical procedure that causes death "swiftly, painlessly and humanely."

"In reality," Humphry said, "it boils down to two things: either an oral overdose of drugs with the doctor standing by, or a lethal injection of barbiturates {followed by} curare."

To get the measure on the November ballot, backers must collect 372,000 valid signatures of registered California voters by May 11. Then, if approved by at least half the voters on Nov. 6, it would become law automatically. Even opponents concede that the initiative has a good chance of reaching the ballot, but passage into law is much less certain.

The California initiative is strongly opposed by the California Medical Association, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Right to Life Committee, among other groups.

"It would be legalized murder," said Dr. Fred Armstrong, an internist in San Jose, Calif., and president of the 34,000-member California Medical Association. "I don't think killing people should be legal in any circumstance."

Though the "vast majority" of physicians oppose the law and would not participate in active euthanasia, Armstrong said, its passage would create a minority group of doctors "who would be ghouls or executioners."

The word "euthanasia" derives from the Greek words for "good" and "death." Originally, it meant a good or painless death. Another common definition, "mercy killing," acquired sinister overtones because of its abuse by the Nazis as a cover for mass murder during World War II.

A patient's right to forgo life-prolonging treatment has been increasingly accepted in recent years by the public, the medical profession and the courts. But the California initiative goes far beyond any current United States law. "It makes an exception to the law against murder," said Richard Doerflinger, assistant director of the Office for Pro-Life Activities in the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The proposed California measure is modeled on the situation in the Netherlands, where euthanasia has been practiced since it was decriminalized by a court decision in 1984.

In 1986, the ethics council of the American Medical Association declared that "for humane reasons, with informed consent," a physician may "cease or omit treatment" to allow a terminally ill patient to die. But, the AMA said, a doctor "should not intentionally cause death."

The proposed California law would apply only to incurably ill adults who are certified by two licensed doctors as likely to die within six months and who request a doctor's aid in dying. A surrogate could act on behalf of a comatose patient only if the patient had put his or her wishes into writing and named the surrogate.

But Doerflinger, of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, worries that once the law took effect, such restrictions might "fade away," opening the way for "lethal injection for people that society may not want to take the trouble to care for."

"Once you accept the principle that people can be directly killed for their own good," he said, "these alleged safeguards will begin to fall, and there will be at least subtle coercion of the elderly and the infirm. People who can't make the decision for themselves will have it made for them."

Critics also worry that legalized euthanasia would boost suicide rates -- a contention denied by the Hemlock Society.

"We're talking about planned death by request, with help," said Hemlock Society director Humphry. "If that sounds like suicide, so be it. We don't think it's suicide. Suicide is an unhappy person leaving this world prematurely and tragically.

"We're talking about accelerated death by request."