Public Support Growing For End-of-Life Options, Georgia Health Policy Center Study Finds
ATLANTA—Public opinion supporting euthanasia and suicide for terminally ill patients has grown over the last 40 years, according to a Georgia Health Policy Center study, published online in the Journal of Death and Dying.
Opinions vary by age, gender and religious affiliation, researchers said.
This is the first study looking at how opinions have changed over time since the passage of state laws allowing physicians to aid terminally ill patients in ending their life. Six states — Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, California and Colorado — and Washington, D.C., have passed laws allowing patient control over end-of-life decisions.
The study used data from the General Social Survey (GSS), a national survey that monitors public opinion and social change among U.S. adults.
- 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 people, 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, a sociologist at the Georgia Health Policy Center at Georgia State University, found that from 1977 to 2016, public support for euthanasia for terminally ill persons increased 12 percentage points to 74 percent, while support for suicide for terminally ill persons increased 27 percentage points to 66 percent.
“While these attitudes have slightly liberalized during the 2004 to 2016 time period, the greatest rises in approval for both measures occurred during the 1980s and 1990s,” Attell said. “While approval of euthanasia for the terminally ill remains higher than suicide in all survey years, attitudes toward both measures converge over time, especially from 2000 onward.”
Public opinion in support of these end-of-life options was not consistent across all demographics.
- Regardless of age, men are consistently more likely than women to support euthanasia and suicide for the terminally ill.
- Support for end-of-life measures increases with higher levels of education.
- Compared with white respondents, individuals identifying as black or other races are less likely to support end-of-life measures.
- As people age, they are considerably less likely to support both end-of-life options for terminally ill persons.
The rising support of both euthanasia and suicide for the terminally ill 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, perhaps due to new medical technologies, advances in health social movements related to death with dignity and changes in our society’s health care system,” Attell said. “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.”