Assisted Suicide: Half of Americans Think It Should Be Legal; How Does It Work?

By iScienceTimes Staff on May 23, 2013 10:55 AM EDT

hospital patient
A new poll finds that half of Americans think doctor-assisted suicide should be legal. This week, Vermont signed a die with dignity law, becoming the fourth state to legalize assisted suicide. (Photo: Reuters / Eric Gaillard)

Half of Americans support doctor-assisted suicide, a new HuffPost/YouGove poll found.

The poll coincides with Vermont becoming the fourth state to legalize doctor-assisted suicide in terminally ill patients this week, and the first to do so through the legislature. Two other states, Oregon and Washington, have passed death with dignity laws through ballot measure, and Montana did so through their courts.  

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"Vermonters who face terminal illness and are in excruciating pain at the end of their lives now have control over their destinies," said Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, who signed the End of Life Choices law on Monday. "This is the right thing to do."

Vermont's doctor-assisted suicide law specifies certain requirements for terminally ill patients wishing to end their lives. They must be of sound mind, make the request formally three times, and the patient's primary care doctor and a consulting physician must agree that the patient is terminally ill.

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen expects that Vermont doctors will only write between 10 to 20 prescriptions a year, based on figures from Oregon, where doctor-assisted suicide was legalized in 1997.

"It's used by a very small number, but it brings comfort to a much greater number knowing it's there," Chen said.

In Oregon and Washington, terminally ill patients who want to end their lives are prescribed pentobarbital, a barbiturate that is dissolved in liquid or semi-liquid. The patient abstains from eating for four of five hours, then takes an anti-nausea drug and the pentobarbital. After five minutes, the patient will fall into a coma. About two hours later, the patient will be dead.

Every step of the process is self-administered in doctor-assisted suicide. That differentiates it from euthanasia, a process in which a doctor or third party actually administers the lethal dose. Euthanasia is illegal in the United States.

In the HuffPost/YouGov poll, 1,000 adults were asked, "If someone is terminally ill and has a limited amount of time to live, should it be legal or illegal for doctors to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it?" Half of respondents said yes, with 29 percent saying no and another 21 percent saying they were not sure.

The poll also raised the moral implications of physicians assisting in suicide, asking, "Regardless of whether it should be legal or not, do you personally consider doctor assisted suicide to be morally acceptable or morally wrong?" 41 percent said it was morally acceptable, 38 percent deemed it unacceptable and 21 percent were unsure.

Democrats and independents surveyed were about as likely to agree that doctor-assisted suicide should be legal, with 54 percent and 56 percent saying it should be legal, respectively. Only 36 percent of Republicans said they thought it should be legal.

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