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Public Grapples With Legality, Morality of Euthanasia

Public Grapples With Legality, Morality of Euthanasia

by Linda Lyons

Dr. Jack Kevorkian has been in a Michigan prison since April 1999, serving 10 to 25 years for helping a man suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease commit suicide. Perhaps Kevorkian's absence from public life is one reason doctor-assisted suicide has been off the radar screen of late.

But with the Terri Schiavo case scheduled to go to the Florida Supreme Court next month, this right-to-die issue may be back on the front pages before the end of summer. Schiavo, a woman who has been severely brain-damaged for 14 years, is at the center of a life-and-death legal battle between her husband and parents, who disagree about whether she would want to be kept alive or allowed to die. Last week, the Florida Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments on Aug. 31.

Gallup's 2004 Values and Beliefs poll* asked respondents about the legality of doctor-assisted suicide using two separate questions. The first question describes the patient as having a "disease that cannot be cured" for which the doctor would "end the patient's life by some painless means if the patient and his family request it." The second question uses more provocative language, asking if a doctor should be able to help a patient who has "a disease that cannot be cured and is living in severe pain" to "commit suicide." Regardless of wording, roughly two-thirds of respondents agree that doctors should legally be allowed to intervene in such a situation. 

In the past three years, Americans have shown slightly higher levels of support for doctors ending patients' lives by painless means than for assisting patients to commit suicide. The gap in support between the two items narrowed slightly this year to 4 percentage points from 10 percentage points in the previous two years. 

Opinion on the same topic, framed as a moral rather than a legal issue, is a little less decisive. A small majority (53%) of Americans feel doctor-assisted suicide is morally acceptable, while 41% say it is morally wrong. This suggests that for a significant number of Americans, doctor-assisted suicide violates their moral sensibilities, but they would not be in favor of legally prohibiting patients and doctors from doing it. 

Religiosity and Doctor-Assisted Suicide

As one might expect, religiosity, as measured by church or synagogue attendance, strongly relates to opinions on doctor-assisted suicide. Thirty-three percent of weekly church attendees think doctor-assisted suicide is morally acceptable, versus 70% of adults who seldom or never attend church. Forty-eight percent of Americans who attend services "nearly weekly" say doctor-assisted suicide is morally acceptable. Similar patterns appear when they are asked whether doctor-assisted suicide should be legal. 

Men are more likely than women to find doctor-assisted suicide morally acceptable, 59% compared with 47%. Men are also more likely than women to support ending a patient's life by painless means at the patient and patient's family's request.

Gallup surveys have regularly found that women tend to be more religious than men (see "Why Are Women More Religious?" in Related Items), which may explain why they are more divided than men on the right-to-die issue. One woman from Pennsylvania (who does not want her name used) thinks doctors should legally be able to help terminally ill patients die because "people should not have to suffer if there's no cure, no hope." But she does feel that doctor-assisted suicide is morally wrong. Asked to explain that juxtaposition, she sighs, "It's a very difficult issue. I just don't understand how anyone, especially a doctor, could actually take a life even if he is legally entitled to do so."

The idea that Americans reconcile their religious beliefs with their feelings about euthanasia in different ways is illustrated in these two comments, both from two retirees:

"Under the right circumstances, a doctor-assisted suicide can be religiously, morally, and legally acceptable," says Helmut, a New Jersey man in his 70s who preferred not to use his last name. "Legally, it is the freedom of every individual to decide what they want to do with their life ... This is one of those moral issues that's not black and white -- it falls somewhere within a very gray scale. But I think God would approve of a mercy killing." 

But Jerry Pregler, a 74-year-old from Iowa, disagrees. He feels that doctors should not be allowed to assist a patient in dying and that it is also morally wrong. Pregler says he feels this way because of his religion. "Of course, I expect doctors to make patients as comfortable as possible, but only God can take away a life."

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,000 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 2-4, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

For results based on the 519 national adults in the Form A half-sample and 481 national adults in the Form B half-sample, the maximum margins of sampling error are ±5 percentage points.

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