California's AIDS initiative got a surprise endorsement from Republican Gov. George Deukmejian last week. His support of the initiative, which would overhaul current state policies for battling the epidemic, riled gay-rights activists and the governor's own public-health advisers who oppose the measure. While Governor Deukmejian's nod may give Proposition 102 a boost among undecided voters, political analysts say it could also galvanize the initiative's opponents - primarily gay activists and public-health officials who have grown weary after fending off similar ballot challenges in 1986 and 1987.
Indeed, within hours of the governor's announcement Friday, about 1,500 gay protesters here swarmed outside the State Building in a show of strength against Proposition 102.
In addition, three of four Deukmejian appointees to the state AIDS Advisory Committee resigned yesterday.
``I think people were shocked that Deukmejian came out in support of 102, in opposition to the positions of his own advisers and the public-health community,'' says Benjamin Schatz of National Gay Rights Advocates. ``It has probably galvanized people who otherwise would be complacent into volunteering their time'' to fight the initiative.
For years, California's AIDS policy has rested on the cornerstones of confidentiality, anonymous testing, and strict anti-discrimination laws. State health officials and the governor's own 30-member AIDS advisory committee have said that anonymous testing - coupled with intensive AIDS-education efforts - is the most effective way to control the epidemic.
Proposition 102's backers, however, say current policy tilts too far toward protecting the privacy of the individual patient - and in the process does not adequately protect the public health.
``We see this disease as a public-health issue, but right now it's being treated as a civil rights issue,'' says Brett Barbre, an aide to US Rep. William Dannemeyer (R), who cosponsored the measure.
Proposition 102, he says, will more effectively ``stop transmission of the disease to others'' by requiring people who test positive for the AIDS-producing virus to divulge the names of their sex partners and of drug users whose hypodermic needles they shared.
While California has been the pacesetter nationally in protecting the privacy of AIDS patients, Proposition 102 would remove most of the confidentiality provisions of current law.
Among other changes, it would eliminate anonymous testing; require doctors to report the names of patients who are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that medical experts say leads to AIDS; and allow insurance companies and employers to test for the virus.
Two earlier ballot measures were defeated by California voters, but Proposition 102 is currently leading in the polls. Its margin of support, however, has been narrowing in recent weeks.