Polls have been asking the following (or similar) question regularly since the 1960s and '70s: "If a hopelessly ill patient, in great pain, with absolutely no chance of recovering, asks for a lethal dose, so as not to wake again, should the doctor be allowed to give the lethal dose?", and the number in favour has steadily increased from about 50 to nearly 80 percent.
Public opinion polls are reported as showing strong public support for the legalisation of assisted suicide and/or euthanasia. This can be misleading.
- Support is lower if the word 'suicide' is used.
- Polls are not specifically asking elderly or disabled people their views on euthanasia.
- Healthy young people project their revulsion at the idea of having to 'live like that.'
- Someone who is newly disabled is usually depressed and vulnerable.
- Disabled people tend to come to terms with their situation after time, and find new enjoyment in their life.
As one commentator said, it would be hard for an uninformed person to say "no" to that question without feeling negligent, dogmatic or insensitive.
But when the current ability of good palliative care to relieve the severe pain of terminal illness is known, though it it also known tragically not to be sufficiently available, the same question could be more accurately put:
"If a doctor is so negligent as to leave a terminally-ill patient in pain, severe enough to drive him / her to ask to be killed, should the doctor be able to compound that negligence by killing the patient, instead of seeking help?" The question is really about medical standards, not euthanasia.
Poll ResultsIn a poll taken by Princeton Survey Research Associates for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, it was found thatsupport for euthanasia is lower when the word "suicide" is used to describe the actions.
Respondents were 51 per cent in favour making it legal for doctors to give terminally ill patients the means to end their lives.
When the wording in the question was changed, only 44 per cent of respondents were in favour of making it legal for doctors to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide.
All those in favour, say aye!
When polls are conducted, they are seldom targeted at elderly or disabled people. For the most part the questions are aimed at relatively young and healthy people who are horrified at the idea of growing old and feeble, or not even so old but terribly sick, losing their faculties, their mobility or their mind (reverting to the helplessness of infancy).
It is inevitably the healthy who recoil from this, as if even death were a preferable alterative to such dependency and deterioration, and who project their revulsion onto those who are in that situation.
As such, they often favour legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide because they can't imagine wanting to live with disability or infirmity if they were in that position. Disability activists point out while many might wish to die in the early weeks and months following disability, when they come to terms with their condition they are thankful no-one took them at their word when they were most vulnerable.
Generally supported by people suffering a terminal illness.
Generally supported by the aged population.
Opposed by nearly all groups representing the terminally ill.
Opposed by nearly all groups representing the elderly.
Sample Poll QuestionsDo you think that the law should allow doctors to comply with the wishes of a dying patient in severe distress who asks to have his or her life ended, or not?"
"There is an Oregon law which allows doctor-assisted suicides for PATIENTS WITH LESS THAN SIX MONTHS TO LIVE. Doctors are allowed to help these patients end their lives ?but only if ? all of the three following conditions are met: 1) The patient requests it three times; 2) There is a second opinion from another doctor; and 3) There is a 15-day waiting period for the patient to change his or her mind. Would you favor or oppose such a law in your state?"
"Lately in the news, there has been much talk about living wills. If you were filling out a living will, what directions would you give your doctor in the event you became unconscious, and, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, you would never regain consciousness?"
People are significantly less likely to support the concept of assisted suicide when questions use the word "suicide."
The phrasing of questions matter
Questions that refer to "ending a patient's life by painless means" draw broader support.
And when a question describes in detail the safeguards (included in Oregon's initiative), support for assisted suicide increases.
Question: When a person has a disease that cannot be cured, do you think doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient's life by some painless means if the patient and his family request it?
No opinion 2%
Question: If a person has a disease that will ultimately destroy their mind or body and they want to take their own life, should a doctor be allowed to assist the person in taking their own life, or not?
Should be allowed 46%
Should not 45%
Don't know/No answer 9%
Question: I'd like to get your views on some issues that are being discussed in this country today. All in all, do you strongly favor, favor, oppose, or strongly oppose... making it legal for doctors to give terminally ill patients the means to end their lives?
Total favor 54%
Strongly favor 18%
Total oppose 39%
Strongly oppose 17%
Don't know 7%
Question: I'd like to get your views on some issues that are being discussed in this country today. All in all, do you strongly favor, favor, oppose, or strongly oppose... making it legal for doctors to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide?
Total favor 43%
Strongly favor 29%
Total oppose 48%
Strongly oppose 24%
Don't know 9%
Question: In 1994, people in Oregon voted on a proposition that would allow doctor-assisted suicide for patients with less than six months to live. Doctors would be allowed to assist these patients if -- but only if -- all of the three following conditions were met: A) the patient requests it three times, B) there is a second opinion from another doctor, and C) there is a 15-day waiting period for the patient to change his or her mind. Would you favor or oppose such a law in your state?
Not sure 5%
Question: Under Oregon law, terminally-ill adults may request that a physician administer a lethal dose of medication to end their life. Do you agree or disagree with this Oregon law?
Don't know 7%
Question:As you may know, physician-assisted suicide involves a doctor giving a patient the means to end their life, such as a prescription for a fatal dose of a drug. Do you think it should be legal or illegal for a doctor to help a terminally ill patient commit suicide?
A final wordLIZ SAYCE (UK Disability Rights Commission):
"We know very well that nondisabled people imagine that even, say, using a wheelchair would make life so awful -- would make their quality of life so awful -- many people think they wouldn't want to live in that sort of situation.
When you're in that situation, once you've adapted to it you don't feel like that, [and] of course you want to live. You can have a great quality of life as somebody who is using a wheelchair, and we really have to guard against nondisabled people with the best of motives -- this is not about anybody being, you know, deliberately discriminatory -- with the best of motives thinking,
"That person has no quality of life. It would be better to relieve them of their misery."