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Support for euthanasia gets big boost after high-profile deaths


Support for euthanasia gets big boost after high-profile deaths

California’s Senate passed a bill last week that would legalize assisted suicide in the state. If the measure passes in the state Assembly, California would become only the fourth state to authorize doctors to kill their patients, but it likely won’t be the last. According to a new Gallup poll, public opinion has shifted to favor euthanasia, opening the door for more widespread legalization efforts.

SB128, the so-called End of Life Option Act, would allow a physician to prescribe life-ending medication for patients who are terminally ill. It passed by a 23-14 vote in the Senate—almost entirely along party lines—and faces a Sept. 11 deadline in the Assembly. Republicans argued the prescriptions could fall into the wrong hands. Others objected for religious reasons.

“Doctors should kill disease,” said Sen. Ted Gaines, a Republican, during the debate. “They should kill pain. But they should not kill their patients. It doesn’t matter if you call it Death with Dignity or Compassionate Choice or anything else. The name is of no consequence compared to the act.”

The euthanasia debate drew national attention when Brittany Maynard moved from California to Oregon so she could legally end her life. Maynard suffered from terminal brain cancer.

She quickly became the poster child for the U.S. pro-euthanasia movement. Though she ended her life in November 2014, her website still advocates for assisted suicide and functions as an initiative of Compassion & Choices, an organization that also backed California’s bill.

Following Maynard’s death, a Gallup poll released May 27 indicates more Americans support physician-assisted suicide. The poll found 68 percent of Americans believe physicians should be allowed to help terminally ill patients hasten their death, an increase of 10 percentage points from last year.

The poll asked, “When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living in severe pain, do you think doctors should or should not be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it?” Gallup asked a similar question without using “suicide,” but the euphemism did not impact poll results.

Opinion reached the same peak in 2001, but dropped to 51 percent in 2013. Gallup credits this year’s increased support to Maynard’s well-publicized story.

“The larger effect that Maynard's story will have is uncertain, but some notable changes in support are evident compared with last year,” Gallup noted. “Young adults are now significantly more likely than older U.S. adults to support doctor-assisted suicide. Meanwhile, support for physician-assisted suicide increased among all three major political affiliations, suggesting no partisan tilt to these changing views.”

The poll also found 56 percent of Americans believe assisted suicide is morally acceptable while only 37 percent believe it is morally wrong. Before Maynard, only 45 percent of Americans believed physician-assisted suicide was morally acceptable.

Gallup said the results are “consistent with changing attitudes related to a number of once-controversial social issues.”

Michael J. New, an associate scholar with the Charlotte Lozier Institute, agrees that the spike in assisted-suicide support likely is due to Maynard’s public death. Because public opinion remained stable between 2013 and 2015, “there is a good chance that doctor-assisted suicide has made some real gains in the court of public opinion,” he wrote for Public Discourse.

The poll results should give pro-life advocates a reason for concern, but not panic, he told me. Because euthanasia advocates have become more active and organized recently, including Compassion & Choices, pro-lifers need to “step up our game a bit.”

But support for assisted suicide, though broad, is still relatively weak, New said. Pro-lifers defeated a Massachusetts initiative to legalize euthanasia, especially through public education efforts. “To a lot of people it may sound sympathetic at first glance, but the more people learn about it the less they like it,” New said.

New also encouraged coordination with religious leaders and disability advocacy groups: “We need to attack with a diverse and broad coalition.”

Courtney Crandell Courtney is a former WORLD correspondent.

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