More MS news articles for Jan 2002

Most US Adults Favor Physician-Assisted Suicide

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) Jan 11 - Nearly two thirds of US adults believe that the law should allow physicians to assist patients in committing suicide, if it reflects the wishes of a dying patient in severe distress, according to the findings of the latest Harris poll.

However, roughly 3 in 10 of the more than 1000 adults surveyed said that the law should not allow physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia.

The nationwide poll was conducted via telephone from December 14 through December 19, 2001.

More than 60% of the respondents said they disagreed with the 1997 US Supreme Court ruling that individuals do not have a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide, while about one third agreed with the ruling. The remaining individuals said that they were not sure whether they agreed or disagreed.

Furthermore, 6 in 10 respondents said they favored legalization of assisted suicide based on Oregon law, which stipulates that euthanasia be performed only after the patient requests it three times; after a second opinion from another physician; and after a 15-day waiting period during which time the patient may change his or her mind.

Oregon's "Death with Dignity Act" was challenged during the late 1990s by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which ruled that physicians who prescribed federally controlled drugs in accordance with that law would violate the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). This ruling was overturned in 1998 by then-Attorney General Janet Reno.

In early November 2001, however, Attorney General John Ashcroft reversed Reno's ruling. In a memo to DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson, he wrote that "DEA's original reading of the CSA--that controlled substances may not be dispensed to assist a suicide--was correct," and ordered that it be reinstated and implemented.

Survey participants were told that Ashcroft "moved to overrule (the proposition), which he says is now illegal," and were then asked, "Do you think (he) was right or wrong to do this?" More than half (58%) of the respondents said that Ashcroft was wrong, while 35% said he was right.

"No matter which questions are asked, there is a strong, approximately two-to-one majority in favor of an individual's right to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide where terminally ill patients clearly want this to happen," the survey concludes.

In light of the survey findings, Ann Jackson, executive director of the non-profit Oregon Hospice Association, told Reuters Health: "I think the public is moving towards wanting the right to make choices for themselves."

She added, however, that caution should be used when taking steps "to make so-called public belief part of public policy."

"We should not use the law to fix problems that could be fixed in another way," she said.

On the other hand, Burke Balch, director of the department of medical ethics for the National Right to Life Committee, suggested that some of the survey respondents may have been misled by the way the questions were asked.

The polling question about Ashcroft, for example, "is flat out wrong," he told Reuters Health.

"It does not reflect the fact that he was enforcing a federal law rather than overturning Oregon law," he explained. Polls that make that distinction when asking such questions "show two-to-one support for the attorney general," he claimed.

Furthermore, "when the voting public in a state has focused on the actual consequences of legalizing euthanasia they have, with the exception of Oregon, voted against it," he said.

Dr. Gregory Hamilton, co-founder of Physicians for Compassionate Care, added that "as soon as people look at the specifics of what happens when the power of assisted suicide is given to doctors in health maintenance organizations (HMOs,) they don't want it (euthanasia) anymore." Physicians for Compassionate Care is an association of healthcare professionals that seeks to minimize the pain of severely ill individuals through compassionate care while educating physicians and the public about the risks of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

Citing instances in which depressed individuals were given assisted suicide instead of treatment, and a demented individual was forced by her family to choose euthanasia, he said, "assisted suicide in the context of cost-containment in the practice of medicine is too dangerous."

Copyright © 2001 Reuters Ltd