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Public Support for End-of-Life Options Continues to Grow

Posted On September 7, 2017
Categories Featured Stories

Public opinion in support of euthanasia and suicide for terminally ill patients has grown over the past 40 years, according to a study published online Sept. 5 in the Journal of Death and Dying. Opinions varied by age, gender, and religious affiliation.

This is the first study looking at long-term opinions since the passage of state laws allowing physicians to aide terminally ill patients in ending their life. Currently, seven states — Oregon, Washington, Montana, New Mexico, Vermont, California, and Colorado — and Washington, D.C. have passed such laws allowing patient control over the end of life.

The study used cumulative data from 23 waves of the General Social Survey (GSS) between 1977 and 2016, representing more than 30,000 responses. GSS is a national survey that monitors public opinion and social change among U.S. adults. GSS asked two end-of-life questions.

To gauge support for euthanasia, GSS asked, “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?”

To assess opinions on suicide for terminally ill persons, GSS asked, “Do you think a person has the right to end his or her own life if this person has an incurable disease?”

Brandon Attell, from the Georgia Health Policy Center at Georgia State University, found that support for euthanasia for terminally ill persons increased by 12% — from 62% in 1977 to 74% in 2016, while support for suicide for terminally ill persons increased by 27% — from 39% in 1977 to 66% in 2016.

“While these attitudes have slightly liberalized during the 2004 to 2016 time period, the greatest fluctuation in rising approval for both measures occurred during the 1980s and 1990s,” explains Attell. “While approval of euthanasia remains higher than suicide in all survey years, attitudes toward both measures converge over time, especially from 2000 onward.”

Support was not consistent across all demographics. Attell found that

  • Regardless of age, men are consistently more likely to support both euthanasia and suicide for terminally ill, compared to women.
  • Support for end-of-life measures increases with higher levels of education.
  • Compared with white respondents, individuals identifying as black or other race are less likely to support end-of-life measures.
  • As people age they are considerably less likely to support euthanasia and suicide for terminally ill persons.

The rising support of both euthanasia and suicide over time has important implications for state-level health policy.

“Beyond the individual level, this study finds that attitudes more drastically change with the passage of time, as the progression of time brings about new medical technologies, advances in health social movements related to death with dignity, and changes in our society’s health care system,” says Attell. “As these changes occur, it is important to monitor attitudes toward end-of-life issues. Given the overall increase in support of euthanasia and suicide for terminally ill persons, we may see more states considering death with dignity laws.”