Assisted Suicides

By: Jeff Grabmeier

Published on February 24, 1998

PEOPLE WANT DIRECT PHYSICIAN INVOLVEMENT IN ASSISTED SUICIDES

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- People are more likely to support assisted suicide if there is direct physician involvement in helping people end their lives, new research suggests.

The findings, based on a study of 514 Ohio residents, showed that 54 percent would support assisted suicide if doctors took an active role, such as giving a lethal injection. A smaller percentage of people -- 49 percent -- would support assisted suicide if doctors simply provided drugs or equipment to patients.

These results indicate there may be disagreements between the general public and the leaders of the assisted suicide movement, according to William MacDonald, author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University’s Newark campus.

“The leaders of the assisted suicide movement are pushing for less active involvement of the physicians and more patient control,” he said. “But our results show there is more support among the public for the direct involvement of physicians.”

The study appears in the current issue of the journal Social Science and Medicine.

The data was collected as part of the 1994 Ohio Death and Dying Survey. A random sample of residents across the state were interviewed by phone. Researchers gave respondents a variety of statements about assisted suicide, and respondents were asked to respond on a five-point scale between “strongly agree” and “strongly disagree.”

While this was not a national sample, MacDonald said that Ohio is near the U.S. national average on several key variables, including income, urban-rural balance, and ethnic composition, and tends to reflect national political trends.

Currently, Oregon is the only state that allows assisted suicide. Oregon residents in November overwhelmingly reaffirmed a 1994 measure that allowed doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to their patients. Direct physician involvement is not allowed.

The activists who pushed for the Oregon law have claimed their success among voters was due to the fact that patients are given more control than doctors in the life-ending process, according to MacDonald.

However, MacDonald said results of his study suggest otherwise. “Although the Oregon law was successful, the lack of direct doctor involvement in that state may be going against public opinion.”

This study did not examine why people were more likely to support direct physician involvement in assisted suicide, but MacDonald has a grant from the National Science Foundation to study that question, among others. He believes there may be several reasons for this view.

“I think many people are afraid the law may be abused if assisted suicides aren’t under the close supervision of a physician,” MacDonald said. “There is the chance that some people may be coerced to commit suicide.”

In addition, people may believe that the suicide process will be less painful and less prone to mistakes if a doctor is in charge, he said.

Other results of the study:

People expressed more support for assisted suicide if doctors were involved (52 percent were supportive in this circumstance) than if only family members (35 percent) or friends (25 percent) helped the patient. People were more likely to support assisted suicide for cancer patients (57 percent)than for those with Alzheimer’s disease (34 percent). This may be because the impaired mental capacity of Alzheimer’s patients makes it difficult to determine a patient’s true desires, he said. There was less support for assisted suicide among children (33 percent) than for patients whose age was not specified (52 percent). As expected, people who said they strongly believed that life belongs to God were less likely to support assisted suicide in general. However, their degree of opposition was somewhat influenced by physician involvement and the type of disease. They were more opposed to assisted suicide when a doctor was not involved and among Alzheimer’s patients.

Funding for this study was provided by a Faculty Seed Grant from Ohio State.

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Contact: William MacDonald, (614) 366-3321; Macdonald.24@osu.edu Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu



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