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Kevorkian to Face Murder Charges

Latest Round in Public Debate Over Assisted Suicide

by Mark Gillespie


As a Michigan jury prepares to consider whether Dr. Jack Kevorkian should go to prison for helping end the life of a terminally ill patient last fall, Americans remain divided over the question of physician-assisted suicide.

Dr. Kevorkian's belief that physicians should be allowed to assist in the suicide of those suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), cancer, and other terminal illnesses has placed the issue in the spotlight, along with the debate over Oregon's so-called "Right-to-Die Law." Oregon voters approved the referendum in 1994 and again in 1997 following court challenges, and the first legal physician-assisted suicides took place in March, 1998.

The results of the second Oregon vote closely mirror current American attitudes on physician-assisted suicide. That referendum passed with support from 60% of Oregon voters, and a new Gallup Poll conducted during the weekend of March 12-14 shows 61% of Americans believe doctors should be allowed to help a terminally ill patient who is living in severe pain commit suicide. Thirty-five percent oppose the practice. These results are also consistent with Gallup Poll trends over the last two years, in which around six out of ten Americans approve of the concept of physician-assisted suicide.

However, when the question becomes a personal matter, Americans are far more reluctant to consider the idea of suicide as a way to end the pain from a terminal illness. Forty percent of those polled say they would consider committing suicide in that case-and 51% say they would not. The results are similar to the results obtained in a Gallup Poll conducted in January, 1997, in which 40% said they would consider suicide and 48% rejected the idea.

As might be expected, support for the concept of physician-assisted suicide diminishes with age. Sixty-two percent of those aged 18-29 support the idea of letting doctors help terminally ill patients in severe pain end their lives, but only 51% of those over 65 do. Additionally, when asked if they would consider suicide if faced with an incurable, painful disease, 47% of those aged 18-29 said they would consider it, while only 32% of those over 65 would.

Turning to Dr. Kevorkian, who was shown in a nationally televised videotape as he ended the life of a terminally ill Michigan man last fall, 52% of Americans approve of his actions, while 43% disapprove. A similar Gallup Poll conducted in December, 1993, indicates that there has been a gain in support for Kevorkian's stand over the last five and a half years. At that time, 43% of Americans approved of Kevorkian's actions, while 47% opposed them. Support for Dr. Kevorkian varies significantly by ideology: Sixty-three percent of those who label themselves as liberal and 61% of moderates approve of Dr. Kevorkian's actions, while only 39% of those who call themselves conservatives do.

While Americans may approve of physician-assisted suicide and, to a lesser extent, Dr. Kevorkian's position on the issue, they have a far less favorable view of him as a person. In a Gallup Poll conducted during the weekend of December 28-29, 1998, only 40% of those polled viewed him favorably, while 47% had an unfavorable opinion.

For results based on the sample of national adults (N=1,025) the margin of error is ±3 percentage points.

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

  Yes No No opinion
99 Mar 12-14 61% 35% 4%
98 Jun 5-7 59 39 2
97 Jun 23-24 57 2 8
97 Jan 3-5 58 37 5

Now just a hypothetical question -- If you personally had a disease that could not be cured and were living in severe pain, would you consider committing suicide, or not?

  99 Mar 12-14 97 Jan 3-5**
Yes, would consider suicide 40 40
No, would not 51 48
MIGHT (vol.) 2 5
  100% 100%
** Based on half sample

Do you approve or disapprove of the actions taken by Doctor Kevorkian

  99 Mar 12-14 93 Dec 4-6
Approve 52 43
Disapprove 43 47
No opinion 5 10
  100% 100%

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