Vast Majority Of Americans Support ‘Right To Die’

A new Gallup poll finds widespread support for individual choice when it comes to end of life decisions.


A new Gallup poll indicates that a majority of Americans support what has come to be called as a “right to die” for people with terminal medical conditions:

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Most Americans continue to support euthanasia when asked whether they believe physicians should be able to legally “end [a] patient’s life by some painless means.” Strong majorities have supported this for more than 20 years.

Although these are largely private family matters, controversy about euthanasia and other end-of-life situations has often become public — most recently, regarding the death of iconic radio host Casey Kasem. His children and his wife fought in court over what to do in the final stages of Kasem’s battle with Lewy body disease, a form of dementia. Ultimately, a judge granted his daughter the authority to have doctors remove his infusions of water, food, and medicine.

These data are from Gallup’s May 8-11 Values and Beliefs poll, conducted before Kasem’s death. Gallup began asking this question about euthanasia in 1947. At that time, Americans were about half as likely (37%) to support euthanasia as they are today. Support had grown by 1990, and since then, a large majority of Americans have backed euthanasia.

The Casey Kasem dispute, which I mentioned in my post on his death, didn’t really garner much media attention, certainly not as much as the nearly decade old Terry Schiavo case, so I’m not sure that it will move the debate forward in any respect. However, the issues that were involved they fall precisely within the polls parameters. Kasem’s children by his first marriage were seeking to enforce the terms of the medical directive that he had signed before he fell ill, and were apparently being opposed by his second wife. Fortunately, the Washington State judge who heard the case decided to uphold the directive, and Kasem died in peace as he wished. This, quite obviously, was in stark contrast to the absurd and in the end disgusting spectacle that “pro-life” groups and Congressional Republicans turned the Schaivo matter into, although it is worth noting that in that case there was no advance medical directive.

As with many issues such as same-sex marriage and marijuana use, there has been a significant shift in public opinion on this issue since Gallup first polled it in 1948:

Gallup Euthanasia One

The sharp upturn in support in the 1970s is not surprising since this is roughly the time during which the issue first really came into the public consciousness through cases such as that of Karen Ann Quinlan, a young New Jersey woman who was placed in a persistent vegatative state due to a drug overdose. While Quinlan’s family, which was devoutely Catholic, did not want to end her life they did end up in a long legal battle with her medical providers to get her disconnected from a ventilator and other life sustaining equipment. Ultimately, the Quinlan family won that battle at the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1976 and Quinlan was taken off the ventilator. As it turned out, she was able to breath on her own and lived in a New Jersey nursing home until she passed away in 1985. Quinlan’s case, among others, served as the impetus for legal reforms that were designed to make it easier for families to act in these cases, and for people to state in advance what they wished to have done should they end up in a similar medical state. Depending on where you live, every state in the country has its own version of a Living Will or Advance Medical Directive, and the execution of such documents has become a standard part of estate planning.

Not surprisingly, there remain differences of opinion on the issue of euthanasia depending on how religious a person happens to be:

Gallup Euthanasia Two

And, the level of public support is different if the question is worded differently, especially if people are asked about “physician assisted suicide”:It strikes me as significant that even doctor assisted suicide, which brings up memories of Jack Kevorkian, also has majority support in the poll. It suggests to me that, when it comes to end of life decision, the American public believes that the decisions should be left to the patient and their family in consultation with medical professionals, and that state really has no business in this at all. Given how intensely personal a situation this is, that strikes me as the only reasonable solution to this issue.

As anyone who has had a family member in a situation where they were hovering on the edge of life and death, or suffering from a terminal illness where the question became how long it would be before they were released from obvious pain, this is an intensely personal decision. Though it’s not an area of law that I’ve ever practiced in, I’ve always told anyone who asked me about the subject that an Advance Medical Directive, or whatever your state calls it, is something you should take care of no matter what age you happen to be. Absent that, its purely a family decision. There’s no role for government here, and certainly no role for busybodies in the so-called “pro-life” movement who think its their business to tell a family that is already grieving how to handle one of the most difficult situations they’ll ever face.

Advance Medical Directive graphic via Wikipedia

FILED UNDER: Health, Law and the Courts, , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held 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 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. C. Clavin says:


  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Since you’ve factored religious belief into the discussion, you might want to add a consideration of the likelihood of pursuing “heroic measures” by religious affiliation.

  3. C. Clavin says:

    Seriously though…
    I just recently lost my mother…and I can tell you that, as a culture, we are a long way from having the process of dying figured out.
    She had a DNR and was still resuscitated on the operating table.
    And you are correct…the right-to-lifers are making it worse not better. Quelle suprise….

  4. @Dave Schuler:

    That would be interesting to see, but I haven’t seen anything specifically polling that and, as usual, Gallup only offers the poll details they choose to release at this time so we don’t know if they asked that question

  5. @C. Clavin:

    I have never encountered anything like that myself, but I’ve heard similar stories about hospitals and nursing homes that end up giving families a heard time over AMD’s, some of them having some bizarre bureaucratic insistence that if it isn’t on their form then they can’t accept it even if state law says something totally different. I would imagine that, sometimes, this is motivated by the whole desire to avoid litigation.

  6. C. Clavin says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    I’m willing to grant that it’s not about liability, but completely altruistic…it’s still against the wishes of those intimately involved in the situation.

  7. Mr. Prosser says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I think it is exactly a desire to avoid litigation. If even one family member objects to a DNR or cessation of life support the MD or institution becomes skittish. It’s interesting to note that the majority of physicians want less end of life care than they prescribe for their patients.

  8. KM says:

    Americans just don’t do death. Not theirs, anyways. They’re ok when its other people.

    I used to work in Psychology a well-known cancer hospital counseling on end-of-life issues with terminal patients. And by terminal, I mean scant days not months or years. It was a singularly depressing job – not due to the nature of the work but because of the sheer frustration patients and family members who point blanked refused to consider the possibility that death was on the horizon. I was screamed at, assaulted (verbal and physical), accused of being a ghoul and opportunist for Big Pharma, had my faith and my parentage questioned. I finally quit after a bed-bound patient with a prognosis of a week left and a delusion he was leaving to go climb Everest in two days finally grasped he was dying and decided to take me with him. He wrapped one of his IVs around my wrist and shoved the pole out a 7 story window. I have a nice scar on my hand where I grabbed the window pane to not follow all the way down.

    It suggests to me that, when it comes to end of life decision, the American public believes that the decisions should be left to the patient and their family in consultation with medical professionals, and that state really has no business in this at all. Given how intensely personal a situation this is, that strikes me as the only reasonable solution to this issue.

    This is the best solution but only works when someone actually acknowledges what’s going on and what the consequences might be. We expend so much time, money and effort trying to buy clearly dying people just a little more time because they can’t go gently into the night. Remember Jahi McMath? The government needs to be able to step in some capacity – they can’t just bow out of the whole business.

    I support the right to die on your own terms in your way, just like I support the right to live in the same manner. Euthanasia shouldn’t be illegal or hindered – if the individual is of sound mind, understands and truly desires this action… well, who are we to judge?

  9. CSK says:

    Probably a lot of people who are fine with a DNR order or withholding treatment might be a little less easy with the notion of a doctor injecting an overdose into a patient and actively hastening the inevitable death, even though in some circumstances it might seem the most merciful thing to do.

  10. Ron Beasley says:

    My father died 12 years ago. He had an assortment of medical issues but at 87 that was not too surprising. His last 2 years were truly a hell on earth with multiple medical procedures and surgery s. A week before he passed away I was finally able to do the right thing and sign a do not resuscitate order.
    My mother died about 18 months ago at 90. She was very active until she was 88 walking a mile a day. When she started to slow down she was given some tests and it was determined she had a bad heart valve. Her primary care physician sent her to a cardiologist who suggested that at her age should would not survive the surgery to repair it. We decided against the surgery but her doctor objected. We ignored him. About four months before she passed away I signed her up for home hospice, once again her doctor objected but finally signed off anyway. She died peacefully in her own home.

  11. Franklin says:

    @C. Clavin: Sorry for your loss. The same thing happened to my godfather this past year.

  12. Franklin says:

    Just playing the devil’s advocate here, but I think the biggest legitimate worry is abusing the right through coercion. “Hey mom, I think it’s time for you to go” can be awfully convincing to someone in a weakened state.

  13. anjin-san says:

    My grandmother lived to be 98. The last time she was really herself was on her 90th birthday, after that she went into a rapid decline. She spent the last 5 or 6 years of her life nearly blind, nearly deaf, helpless and suffering from dementia.

    During the rare moments she was lucid and able to communicate, she told me that she prayed every night that she would go to sleep and not wake up.

    I know I don’t want to go down that road. A persons life is their own property. Not the churches, not the governments and not that of the for-profit health care system that is dedicated to sucking them dry financially before they die.

    Allow people to end their lives quickly, painlessly, and with dignity, if that is their choice.

  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Franklin: Speaking as one who had to utter words to that affect to my mother you have no idea how angry it makes me feel to hear you treat the issue so cavalierly. It was the hardest thing I have ever done and I still haven’t forgiven myself. It was the right thing to do, and after a long downward trend that was only getting worse and worse I know somebody had to say it to her. I just wish to Dog it hadn’t had to be me.

    So, STFU about stuff you don’t have a clue about. If you are lucky, you never will.

  15. Pinky says:

    I’m thinking about the way cancer especially, but a lot of life-threatening conditions, are depicted. We’re told that the most important thing a patient can do is resolve not to let it win, that the difference between beating it and dying is a matter of personal will. And I can get how determination can be a factor. But we’ve created a kind of myth about it, that you’re letting yourself and your family down if you think – even for a moment – that you’re not going to climb Mt. Everest in two days. The brave man, the winner, is the guy who says, “I don’t care what the odds are, doc, this isn’t going to beat me”. No wonder we get crazed.

  16. Matt Bernius says:

    Completely correct sir. There are disease that *cannot* be beaten. And accepting what is happening to you, and dying with dignity, should *not* be taken as being a “loser.”

    Likewise, there should never be shame in losing a well-fought fight. I’ve personally known a few friends and family that didn’t get to say proper good-byes because they were too focused on “beating this thing.”

  17. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Both my mother and mother-in-law suffered from different forms of dementia. Even so, we had to emphasize to the attending physician when my mother-in-law suffered a massive stroke that she didn’t want to be kept alive. My mother died in her sleep unexpectedly so there was no last struggle. It’s not easy to accept, even when you know what a loved one wants.

  18. Franklin says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Since I respect your opinion, I have to apologize for being too cavalier about a serious issue.

    But in my defense, I was putting up a discussion point and didn’t mean to imply that having a frank discussion with a dying person is usually or even often wrong. It’s true that I haven’t personally had to suggest that to anyone – the people who I’ve seen going already knew and were themselves ready.

    I don’t think it is difficult to find evidence of neglect of the elderly and people who would prefer their burdens to just go away already. Again, not everybody or even most people, but the devil’s advocate position is to protect against those cases.

  19. bill says:

    i always say i just want to cash my chips in when i slide into whatever irreversible malady i come down with. then i remember my ex’s dad- a washed up drunk/druggie who came down with diabetes when he was in his 40’s. when i met him he looked like the grateful dead mascot, just thinner. his doctor told him he’d die in 6 months if he didn’t quit everything- and he quit everything (smoking, booze, drugs,etc). then he started running marathons. eventually the diabetes caught up with him and they started lopping off toes, feet, shins,etc but he kept on running. i think he was afraid to die in the end.
    anyhow, i’m all for free will when it come to pulling your own plug.