US polls send mixed signals on assisted suicide

Michael Cook
21 June 2014
Reproduced with Permission

"Most Americans Are Totally Fine With Euthanasia" was the headline this week in Time magazine over a report on a recent Gallup poll. According to the polling service, "Strong majorities have supported this for more than 20 years."

However, the question in the survey did not mention the words "euthanasia" or "assisted suicide". It was:

"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 or her family request it?"

Gallup framed the issue in a different way in the same poll with this question:

"When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living in severe pain, do you think doctors should or should not he allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it?"

The result was starkly different - a majority, but only of 58%.

As Gallup points out, "Americans are less likely to support euthanasia … when the question does not mention the word suicide." This suggests that the respondents know very little about the issue and might even be confusing euthanasia with palliative care.

Last November a Pew Forum poll came up with quite different figures. It found that 49% disapproved of laws that would allow a doctor to prescribe lethal doses of drugs which a terminally ill patient could use to commit suicide.

While Americans may be inconsistent and ill-informed on end-of-life issues, the Pew poll also suggests that more and more approve of a moral right to suicide:

"About six-in-ten adults (62%) say that a person suffering a great deal of pain with no hope of improvement has a moral right to commit suicide, up from 55% in 1990. A 56% majority also says this about those who have an incurable disease, up from 49% in 1990. While far fewer (38%) believe there is a moral right to suicide when someone is "ready to die because living has become a burden," the share saying this is up 11 percentage points, from 27% in 1990. About a third of adults (32%) say a person has a moral right to suicide when he or she "is an extremely heavy burden on his or her family," roughly the same share as in 1990 (29%)."