Most Americans Agree With Right-to-Die Movement

By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter

NEW YORK , N.Y. – December 5, 2014 – Already-strong public support for right-to-die legislation has grown even stronger in the days since the planned death of 29-year-old brain cancer patient Brittany Maynard, a new HealthDay/Harris Poll has found.

An overwhelming 74 percent of American adults now believe that terminally ill patients who are in great pain should have the right to end their lives, the poll found. Only 14 percent were opposed.

Broad majorities also favor physician-assisted suicide and physician-administered euthanasia.

Only three states — Oregon, Washington and Vermont — currently have right-to-die laws that allow physician-assisted suicide.

Public opinion on these issues seems to be far ahead of political leadership and legislative actions, said Humphrey Taylor, chairman of The Harris Poll. Only a few states have legalized physician-assisted suicide and none have legalized physician-administered euthanasia.

People responded to the poll in the weeks after Maynard took medication to end her life in early November.

Maynard moved from California to Oregon following her diagnosis with late-stage brain cancer so she could take advantage of the state’s Death With Dignity Act. Her story went viral online, with a video explaining her choice garnering nearly 11.5 million views on YouTube.

A poster child for the movement, Maynard helped spark conversations that allowed people to put themselves in her shoes, said Frank Kavanaugh, a board member of the Final Exit Network, a right-to-die advocacy group.

I think it is just a natural evolution over a period of time, Kavanaugh said of the HealthDay/Harris Poll results. There was a time when people didn’t talk about suicide. These days, each time conversations occur, people think it through for themselves, and more and more are saying, ‘That’s a reasonable thing to me.’

The poll also found that:

  • Support for a person’s right to die has increased to 74 percent, up from 70 percent in 2011. Those opposed decreased to 14 percent from 17 percent during the same period.
  • Physician-assisted suicide also received increased support, with 72 percent now in favor, compared with 67 percent in 2011. Opposition declined from 19 percent to 15 percent.
  • Sixty-six percent of respondents said doctors should be allowed to comply with the wishes of dying patients in severe distress who ask to have their lives ended, up from 58 percent in 2011. Opposition decreased from 20 percent in 2011 to 15 percent now.

The very large — more than 4-to-1 and increasing — majorities in favor of physician-assisted suicide, and the right of terminally ill patients to end their lives are consistent with other liberal social policy trends, such as support for same-sex marriage, gay rights and the decriminalization of marijuana, seen in the results of referendums and initiatives in the recent mid-term elections, Taylor said.

Support for the right-to-die movement cut across all generations and educational groups, both genders, and even political affiliation, the poll found.

Democrats tended to be more supportive of right-to-die legislation, but 56 percent of Republicans said they favor voluntary euthanasia and 63 percent favor physician-assisted suicide.

Kavanaugh was not surprised. People think of this as a liberal issue. But I find that as I talk to [conservatives], you can appeal to them on the basis of ‘get the government the hell out of my life,’ he said.

But the public is split over how such policies should be enacted, with 35 percent saying that the states should decide on their own while 33 percent believe the decision should be made by the federal government, the poll found.

Most of the people I know in the field whose opinion I put stock in don’t feel there’s ever going to be federal movement on it, Kavanaugh said. You’re just going to have to suffer through a state-by-state process.

Kavanaugh does believe this overwhelming public support will result in steady adoption of right-to-die laws.

I think this will become the ultimate human right of the 21st century, the right to die with dignity, he said. There are good deaths and bad deaths, and it is possible to have a good death.

Despite increasing public support for assisted suicide, stiff opposition remains in some quarters.

Assisted suicide sows confusion about the purpose of life and death. It suggests that a life can lose its purpose and that death has no meaning, Rev. Alexander Sample, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, said in a pastoral statement issued during Maynard’s final days.

Cutting life short is not the answer to death, he said. Instead of hastening death, we encourage all to embrace the sometimes difficult but precious moments at the end of life, for it is often in these moments that we come to understand what is most important about life. Our final days help us to prepare for our eternal destiny.

Todd Cooper, a spokesman for the Portland archdiocese, said the debate over assisted suicide touches him on a very deep level because of his wife, Kathie.

About 10 years ago, she also was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. She endured two brain surgeries, two years of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation therapy, and remains alive to this day.

If she’d given up the fight for life, she wouldn’t be here, Cooper said. That doesn’t necessarily happen in every case, but it gives hope for those who struggle to the very end.

The HealthDay/Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between Nov. 12-17 among 2,276 adults 18 and older. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted, where necessary, to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population.

More information

For more on the debate over right-to-die advocacy, visit Debate.org.

 

SOURCES: HealthDay/Harris Poll, Nov. 12-17, 2014; Humphrey Taylor, chairman, The Harris Poll; Frank Kavanaugh, Ph.D., retired professor of medical and public affairs, George Washington University Medical Center, Washington, D.C., and board member, the Final Exit Network; Todd Cooper, spokesman, Archdiocese of Portland, Ore.

Last Updated: Dec. 04, 2014

 

 

TABLE 1

RIGHT TO END YOUR OWN LIFE

How much do you agree with the following statement? Individuals who are terminally ill, in great pain and who have no chance for recovery, have the right to choose to end their own life.

Base: All Adults

Total2011

Total 2014

Generation

Education

Political Party

Millennials (18-37)

Gen X (38-49)

Baby Boomers (50-68)

Matures (69+)

High School

Some College

College Grad

Post Grad

Rep.

Dem.

Ind.

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Agree (NET)

70

74

75

76

74

68

75

74

72

76

64

78

78

Very much agree

49

54

52

58

56

48

55

55

52

53

42

60

57

Somewhat agree

21

20

23

18

18

20

20

19

20

23

22

18

21

Disagree (NET)

17

14

12

14

15

20

13

15

15

16

23

11

13

Somewhat disagree

4

4

4

4

3

4

3

4

6

4

5

3

4

Very much disagree

13

10

8

10

11

16

10

11

10

12

18

8

8

Not at all sure

8

8

7

7

8

11

9

7

10

6

9

8

6

Decline to answer

4

4

5

4

3

2

4

4

3

2

4

3

4

Note: Percentages may not add up exactly to 100% due to rounding.

 

 

 

TABLE 2

DOCTORS’ ROLE WITH TERMINALLY ILL PATIENTS

Do you think doctors should be allowed to advise terminally ill patients who request the information on alternatives to medical treatment, and/or ways to end their own lives?

Base: All Adults

Total 2011

Total 2014

Gender

Party Identification

Male

Female

Rep.

Dem.

Ind.

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Yes (NET)

67

72

74

71

63

76

76

Yes, in all cases

27

32

36

28

25

37

31

Yes, in certain cases

40

40

38

43

38

39

46

No, never

19

15

15

15

25

12

11

Not at all sure

15

13

12

14

12

12

13

Note: Percentages may not add up exactly to 100% due to rounding.

 


TABLE 3

END OF LIFE LAWS – DETAIL

Do 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 life ended, or not?

Base: All Adults

Total 2011

Total 2014

Gender

Party Identification

Male

Female

Rep.

Dem.

Ind.

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Yes, should allow

58

66

69

62

56

72

67

No, should not allow

20

15

15

16

25

11

12

Not sure

22

19

16

22

18

16

21

Note: Percentages may not add up exactly to 100% due to rounding

 

 

TABLE 4

END OF LIFE LAWS – DETAIL

Regardless of whether or not you believe any form of physician assisted suicide should be legal or not, do you think that the decision should be made at the state level, or do you think it should be a federal decision which applies to all states?

Base: All Adults

Total 2014

Gender

Party Identification

Male

Female

Rep.

Dem.

Ind.

%

%

%

%

%

%

Should be a state decision

35

36

34

45

29

37

Should be a federal decision

33

36

30

25

39

32

Not sure

32

28

36

30

32

31

Note: Percentages may not add up exactly to 100% due to rounding


TABLE 5a

END OF LIFE DIRECTIVES

Some people have directives, or documented instructions and/or wishes and preferences regarding the type of care they would like to receive (or not receive) at the end stages of their life; these are sometimes called living wills.

Do you know people, living or deceased, who have created such directives?

And, have you created any such directives for yourself?

Base: All Adults

 

Know of people who have created directives

Have created directives for yourself

Yes

No

Not at all sure

Yes

No

Not at all sure

Total 2011

%

56

31

13

28

66

5

Total 2014

%

52

32

15

28

67

5

Note: Percentages may not add up exactly to 100% due to rounding.

 

 

 

 

TABLE 5b

END OF LIFE DIRECTIVES

Some people have directives, or documented instructions and/or wishes and preferences regarding the type of care they would like to receive (or not receive) at the end stages of their life; these are sometimes called living wills.

…And, have you created any such directives for yourself?

Base: All Adults

Total 2014

Generation

Millennials (18-37)

Gen X (38-49)

Baby Boomers (50-68)

Matures (69+)

%

%

%

%

%

Yes

28

10

23

36

65

No

67

82

73

60

34

Not at all sure

5

8

4

5

1

Note: Percentages may not add up exactly to 100% due to rounding


Methodology

This HealthDay/Harris Poll was conducted online, in English, within the United States between November 12 and 26, 2014 among 2,276 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words margin of error as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this HealthDay/Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

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