Dec 022013

A November study from the Pew Research, Religion and Public Life Project, reports on several lightning-rod end-of-life issues among American adults. A telephone survey of nearly 2,000 adults found that, compared to 1990 respondents, a growing minority would want doctors and nurses to “do everything possible” to save a patient, no matter how dire the situation. Although more than two-thirds of respondents said that it is okay, in some circumstances,  to allow a patient to die, nearly a third disagree. In a 1990 survey, only 15% opted for the “do everything” response. Researchers suggest that this change may be the result of an increase in the numbers of people who actually have an opinion on the topic. This split holds true in what people who would want done for themselves, too: a majority would prefer to be allowed to die if they were in pain and suffering from an incurable disease, but a third would still want “everything” done.

In terms of personal preferences, 57% would tell their doctors to stop treatment and let them die if they were in pain/incurable. And 62% feel that people in this circumstance have a “moral right” to suicide.  If the issue is simply one of being a burden to family, however, that percentage falls to 32%.

Meanwhile, public opinion on the morality of physician-assisted suicide or physician aid-in-dying remains evenly split.

The Pew results also point to the ongoing need to promote opportunities for people to acknowledge and talk about end-of-life issues, especially in terms of treatment preferences. Even people over the age of 74 seem reluctant to consider mortality: fully 25% had given “not much” or no thought to these issues; and 22% had neither discussed or written down their preferences.

Dr. Joanne Lynn, Director of Altarum Institute’s Center for Elder Care and Advanced Illness, discussed the survey results with Lois M. Collins of  Deseret News. The responses reflect widespread misconceptions about  just how most of us will die, and the range of services and supports we will need along the way, as  we age into frailty.

The full survey report, along with other relevant documents, is online. Pew Research also released  “To End Our Days: The Social, Legal and Political Dimensions of the End-of-Life Debate”, which presents an overview of the public debate on these issues in the last half-century in the U.S. An interactive timeline highlights key events and developments on the issue. “Religious Groups’ Views on End-of-Life Issues” describes what 16 major American religious traditions teach about one controversial aspect of the debate: physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia.


key words: Pew Research, physician assisted suicide, physician aid in dying, end of life

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