Vast Majority Of Americans Support Physician-Assisted Suicide

A new poll shows that nearly seven in ten Americans believe that people who are terminally ill should be allowed to end their lives with the help of a doctor.

Right To Die

A new Gallup survey shows that the vast majority of Americans support the idea of allowing patients who are terminally ill to end their life with the assistance of a doctor:

Nearly seven in 10 Americans (68%) say doctors should be legally allowed to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide, up 10 percentage points from last year. More broadly, support for euthanasia has risen nearly 20 points in the last two years and stands at the highest level in more than a decade

These results come from Gallup’s Values and Beliefs survey, conducted May 6-10. Typically, firm majorities of Americans have supported physician-assisted suicide for certain types of medical patients, though the magnitude of the support ebbs and flows. In 2001, support for physician-assisted suicide mirrored the current peak — 68% — and remained slightly below that level for the ensuing decade. Possibly in response to the accusations of “death panels” that arose during the acrimonious debate surrounding passage of the Affordable Care Act, support dropped to bare-majority levels throughout much of President Barack Obama’s first term. Public support for euthanasia fell to a low of 51% in 2013, before rebounding to 58% last year.

This year finds an uptick in support for euthanasia after the high-profile story last year of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard. Dying from terminal brain cancer, Maynard left her home state of California, where physicians are barred from assisting suicide, and ended her life in Oregon, where the practice is legal. Somewhat in response to this well-publicized story, the California state Legislature is currently considering a bill that would legalize doctor-assisted suicide.]

As this chart shows, support for the “right to die” is now at the highest level it has ever been since Gallup started polling this question, and opposition to the idea is near its lowest level ever:

Gallup Right To Die Chart One

What’s most interesting about the poll, though, is the fact that there has been such a big uptick in support over the course of the year, and that every demographic group shows a majority in support of the idea of a “right to die”:

Gallup Right To Die Chart Two

I’m unsure how much significance we should place on the fact that there has been such a large increase in support for the physician-assisted suicide since last year. For one thing, the numbers that we are seeing now are largely consistent with what this poll has shown over the nearly twenty years that Gallup has been asking the question. There has always been majority support for the idea of a “right to die,” and the opposition has always been in the minority. Those numbers have varied somewhat over time, but there’s always been that general consistency. The anomalies lie in the drop off in support for the idea that seemed to occur over the past five or six years or so. Gallup suggests that this may have been due to the political debates over the Affordable Care Act and the political rhetoric about “death panels,” but I’m not sure that’s a very good explanation. We may have just been dealing with issues relating to how the poll was conducted in that era, or it’s possible that some people were experiencing doubts over the idea of placing that much trust in the medical profession. Whatever the reason, in recent years the poll numbers have returned to their historic upward trend.

Another explanation may lie in the fact that the poll also shows that a majority of Americans believe that physician-assisted suicide is morally acceptable, while the number of those who say that it is not has fallen to an all-time low:

Gallup Right To Die Chart Three

The issue of a terminally ill patient’s right to die has been in the news more than usual over the course of the past year, and that may be one reason why public attitudes have shifted so much in such a short period of time. When I wrote about last year’s version of this poll, Casey Kasem had just passed away after a long battle between his wife and the children from his first marriage who were seeking to end the life-sustaining treatment he was receiving. The issue was brought even more into public consciousness, though, with the case of Brittney Maynard, a woman diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer who had moved from California to Oregon in large part so that she could take advantage of the laws in that state that allow for physician-assisted suicide. Maynard made news in the fall when she went public with the news that she would end her life in November and her case quickly became the subject of a the same kind of intense public debate that we saw during the Terry Schiavo controversy. After initially saying that she had decided to delay her decision, Maynard indeed ended up taking her life on November 1st just as she had planned all along. While the case raised intense opposition from many of the same conservative circles that were prominent during the Schiavo debate, it seemed rather clear at the time that the public consensus in the United States was that this was her decision to make and that she should not have been prevented from making it. No doubt, those two stories, and most especially Brittney Maynard’s case, caused many Americans to give more thought to the issue of what they would do in a similar situation than they otherwise might have done.

From a moral perspective, it seems fairly clear that individuals ought to have the right to determine when and how their life is going to end when they are diagnosed with a terminal illness like cancer. If individual liberty means anything, it would seem to most especially mean the right to determine one own’s destiny and fate in this type of situation, especially when it can be established that the decision is being made with full knowledge of the facts and not based upon mental illness or pressure from others. Ideally, of course, this is a situation that most people would make determinations about long before a decision has to be made through the preparation of Advance Medical Directives and similar documents. This is especially true in situation where someone isn’t able to make decisions because of their condition, or because they are incapacitated. Physician-assisted suicide, of course, is a step beyond what is normally covered by such documents, but there isn’t any reason why they couldn’t be used to cover such situations as long as the law permitted it. At the very least, though, it seems obvious that it would be incredibly cruel to keep force someone to stay alive in a situation where the future that they face involves only suffering and inevitable death. Some people will choose to accept that fate, of course, but that’s their own choice, it’s not one that society as a whole should force on everyone.

Despite the fact that there is widespread public support for physician-assisted suicide, the practice is basically illegal in the United States. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that there was no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide in a case that challenged laws that made the practice a felony in two states. Since then, four states — Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and Montana — have adopted laws that either establish a procedure that must be followed if a patient wishes to die with the assistance of a doctor or provide legal immunity for doctors who write a prescription for lethal medication upon a patient’s request. In a fifth state, New Mexico, a trial court judge ruled last year that terminally ill patients have a right to die under the state’s Constitution. That case is presently being considered by the New Mexico Court of Appeals, the state’s intermediate appellate court. Beyond these states, though, there has been little movement on the issue in other states and several efforts to change assisted suicide laws either in state legislatures or via referendum have failed, Whether that will change in the light of new polling numbers that show such overwhelming support for the idea remains to be seen.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Paul L. says:

    I thought Death Penalty opponents claimed there is no drug to painlessly end someone’s life.
    Maybe the state can use the same “prescription for lethal medication “.

  2. Scott says:

    This is another case where the general public is ahead of the political/governmental establishment on social issues. Probably as it should be.

  3. Slugger says:

    Oregon passed an assistance in dying law in 1994. They issue annual reports. The dire consequences that opponents feared have not materialized. The people of Washington state had voted down such a law in 1991, but they passed one in 2008 which have have been due to a change in the zeitgeist but I think the Oregon experience surely had an impact.
    I have attended the last few minutes of biologic function of quite a few people. Recently, I was at the final moment of a dog. The dog got propofol. I know what I hope to use when my time comes.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    The changing acceptance of assisted suicide likely reflects nothing more complicated than the decline in religious influence and baby boomers, like me, reaching the age when you start thinking about end of life.

  5. JohnMcC says:

    I’ve had fairly intimate contact with this issue in my 30+ year career as an ICU nurse. Here’s something to think about:

    http://www.fredhutch.org/en/news/center-news/2014/05/How-doctors-die.html

    “A new study about end-of-life care sheds light on a ‘disconnect’ between what physicians say they’d want for themselves and what they’re actually providing for their patients.” …..

    “A big disparity exists between what Americans say they want at the end of life and the care they actually receive’…author V.J.Periyakoil (ed: clinical prof Stanford Med) wrote in the study. ‘More than 80% of patients say they wish to avoid hospitalizations and high-intensity care, but their wishes are often overridden.”

    The entire weight of the official culture and the way that health care is organized and reimbursed essentially guarantees that without strenuous efforts by a dying person and their family there will be endless efforts to ‘DO SOMETHING’ to save that person’s life. And of course that ‘something’ is almost always something invasive, painful and expensive and in the long run, futile.

    From the political point of view, Terry Schiavo.

    @Paul L.: Don’t know where you’ve been getting your information but there are endless numbers of drugs that effectively end a person’s life. I think it’s still true that the number one fatal overdose in the US (among legal drugs) is acetaminaphen (‘Tylenol’). That one in particular works by destroying the liver which leads to a frightfully uncomfortable few days or weeks before one dies.

    The drug combination that was until recently a sort of ‘standard’ for capital punishment (barbituate then paralytic then enough potassium to stop the heart) never had anything to do with medicine. It was proposed by a Mr Chapman who was the OK chief medical examiner and passed by the OK legislature back in 1977. (I see from wikipedia that the Oklahoma University Med School Head of Anesthesiology Dr Stanley Deutsch certified that it would effectively kill someone, so there’s that much input from ‘medicine’.)

    As to whether such a death is painful, no one has come back to tell us. In the case of the Mr Clayton Lockett of OK, the IV was apparently not in a vein. He had the three-drug combination forced into the tissues of his groin (they had tried a femoral vein approach after being unable to put an IV into his arm). It is horribly painful to have concentrated potassium solution floating into one’s tissue. If he had lived (it took him two hours to die) he’d have had a large chemical burn with sloughing tissue forming a virtual crater in the area between his inner thigh and his scrotum.

    One can wish that enthusiasts for the death penalty have such an experience, can’t one?

  6. Matt says:

    @Paul L.: No most claim a variety of things from the inequality of the application of the death penalty to the big one of innocent people having been executed.

    The whole drug thing is quite low on the list of reasons for most death penalty opponents.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    So Obama’s Death Panels have been hard at work behind the scenes. And you liberals thought we were overreacting.

  8. DrDaveT says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    So Obama’s Death Panels have been hard at work behind the scenes.

    Is this like downsizing through attrition?

  9. michael reynolds says:

    I oppose the death penalty. But if you’re looking for a painless way to kill someone, you will feel no pain from a high velocity bullet to the head. You’re dead long before you could conceivably register pain.

    Guillotine would be second choice. You’d have a very weird few seconds looking up and seeing your neck oozing blood and spinal fluid, but I would guess that shock would delay the pain and allow a pretty painless death. But with a very disturbing couple of seconds.

    Then, you could try playing with consciousness. You could cause the prisoner to be given a large dose of LSD. Then carry out the execution. It could be either an especially horrific death or a kinda groovy one. It could be one of a whole suite of customizations. There could be a menu of possible methods, drug enhancements, last munchie, blindfold options – it would be like dying at a Ritz-Carlton.

    I have a bit of a needle phobia myself, so I would not be happy to be executed by lethal injection. I would however find it to be a kind of a plot resolution. All his life he hated needles until one finally killed him. I would die with a wry smile.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    As for killing myself, I’d like to have that option, but I’d rather not have to leave a lot of blood and brain around for my wife to clean up. I want to go like Edward G. Robinson in Omega Man.

    Plus, the debate over whether or not to include the death procedure under Obamacare would be amazing fun.

  11. Ron Beasley says:

    @Paul L.: There is only one problem with this argument. The doctor assisted suicide drugs are ingested voluntarily not injected. How many people on death row are going to voluntarily ingest the fatal drugs?

  12. Tony W says:

    I see this as essentially a civil rights issue. I am pro-freedom for individual choices as long as those choices don’t restrict other people’s freedoms.

    We don’t want the state regulating people’s choices in this matter, any more than we want them restricting abortion, gay marriage or universal voting.

    People spend entirely too much time thinking about what other people are doing, and not enough focused on their own business.

  13. Lynn Eggers says:

    @gVOR08: “The changing acceptance of assisted suicide likely reflects nothing more complicated than the decline in religious influence and baby boomers, like me, reaching the age when you start thinking about end of life.”

    Except that the huge change, 19%, is among 18-34 year olds and those over 55 give it the lowest approval rating of the 3 groups.