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New Pew Findings: Support for Death with Dignity

November 21, 2013

Pew Research released new findings today on Americans’ attitudes about end-of-life care and available options. Eighty-two pages in all, it’s an extensive report which looks not only at attitudes about Death with Dignity laws but also people’s feelings about:

  • Life-preserving treatments
  • Preparation for, documenting, and discussing end-of-life wishes
  • Views on medical treatment decisions by a healthcare proxy
  • Aging and quality of life

The report compares views about end-of-life care based on surveys conducted in 1990 and 2005. It’s the second in a two-part series by Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project exploring findings of surveys on bioethics questions. The first, published back in August, focused on Americans’ views on aging, medical advances, and radical life extension.

In order to be able to compare findings from prior reports, Pew researchers framed questions around Death with Dignity laws as suicide or physician-assisted suicide. As a recent Gallup poll found, language choice itself matters greatly when discussing different end-of-life options and how the question is asked can skew results.

Summarizing their findings, Gallup wrote, “Americans generally favor allowing doctors to assist terminally ill patients in ending their lives, but the degree of support ranges from 51% to 70%, depending on how the process is described.” Even using language which has been found to bias respondents, Pew still found the majority of respondents, 56%, say people have a moral right to hasten their death when they have an incurable disease.

The report is accompanied by a historical look at Death with Dignity as well as other rights surrounding end-of-life care such as refusing treatment and proxy healthcare decisions. Death with Dignity National Center executive director Peg Sandeen is quoted in the report explaining how Death with Dignity laws are founded in compassion:

This is about compassion. A compassionate society does not allow people to suffer unnecessarily. This lets [people who are dying] make their own choices during the last stages of their lives.

In other words, the laws our organization promotes put the decisions back in the hands of people who are dying. The laws allow patients to regain control of their lives at a time when it seems so much control has been lost and this allows them to get back to the business of living their lives fully right up to the end. To quote Peg again:

Death with Dignity is really about living life, and not death. For the terminally ill, life is often medicalized, centered around doctors and treatments. This frees up people in the final stages of life to really focus on life and the meaning of life, rather than doctors and medicine.

Peg’s comments echo those of doctor and ethicist Eric Cassell in The Healer’s Art who points out the ultimate goal of medicine is to help people stay in control of their lives:

If I had to pick the aspect of illness that is most destructive to the sick, I would choose the loss of control. Maintaining control over oneself is so vital to all of us that one might see all the other phenomena of illness as doing harm not only in their own right but doubly so as they reenforce the sick person’s perception that he is no longer in control. The doctor’s job is to return control to his patient.

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Afterword: Physician-Assisted Dying Concepts

Aid in Dying States: What Makes Montana Different?

News reports about Death with Dignity often mention that five states now allow medical aid in dying. However, only four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington—have passed legislation detailing a Death with Dignity process. The fifth state, Montana, instead used the judicial system to become an aid in dying state. A 2009 Montana Supreme Court decision determined that the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act already in place would allow doctors to legally prescribe lethal medication to their terminally ill patients. Both a Death with Dignity bill and a bill prohibiting the practice have been introduced in the state legislature several times; none of them have passed.