Majority favours assisted dying

New international research reveals that the majority responding to questions about assisted suicide, are in favour.  This contrasts with a recent review of research that suggests that UK doctors consistently oppose euthanasia.

The results, drawn from the views of over 62,000 people who contributed views to a large number of research papers on the subject from different countries, reveals for the first time, that people from very different backgrounds and experience, on the whole, share similar views on this topic.

Those are the headline results of a desk-based review and synthesis of all the available literature published about assisted dying, collected via qualitative and quantitative research methods. The synthesis was carried out by Bangor University and is about to be published in Palliative Medicine, October 2012 (DOI: 10.1177/0269216312463623) published by SAGE.  A contrasting recent review of research suggested that UK doctors appear to consistently oppose euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide; doctors saw the provision of palliative care as important in reducing suffering and the need for assisted dying.

The Bangor University review brought together the views of lay people responding to a range of different research themes and sheds light on ordinary people’s perspectives about assisted dying.  It emerges that, at the end of life, psycho-emotional factors such as dependency, hopelessness, loss of dignity, loneliness and a loss of self and being a burden were at least as significant as pain in motivating people to consider an assisted death.  People wished to have autonomy and control so they could choose the right time to die.  If pain were the main problem, people could be helped by good pain relief, but the other facets of unbearable suffering were not perceived as being amenable to palliative care.

Included in the research were the voices of people from different countries and religious standpoints, from the general population, and those with life-limiting illnesses including cancer, AIDS and MS and people with disabilities and their carers, and from countries and States with differing legal status to assisted dying.

Maggie Hendry, who led the research at Bangor University’s North Wales Centre for Primary Care Research said:

“For the first time, we’re giving voice to the majority opinion on this topic. In the media, the debate seems to have focussed on the opinions of the medical profession and their legal advisers, religious groups and a few high-profile cases.”

Lord Joffe’s Terminally Ill Bill (blocked by the House of Lords 2006) required a doctor to “conclude that the patient is suffering unbearably as a result of a terminal illness” yet it is debatable whether a doctor should have to “agree” that a person’s suffering is unbearable.  If a doctor recognises the person’s autonomy, and their own perception of suffering, this research suggests it needs to be the person who decides.

Prof Clare Wilkinson of the North Wales Centre for Primary Care Research said:
“Our work highlights the collective views of a huge number of people, including those from Britain. The medical profession needs to recognise and have respect for this majority view even if we don’t agree with it.”

Unbearable suffering and how that related to quality of life came across as the main reason motivating people to consider an assisted death. How that was defined however, was dependent upon perspective and experience. The general public imagined that severe intractable pain would be the most important reason to justify assisted dying. Those who were ill or had suffered from a life-limiting condition were more likely to identify that although pain could be helped by good pain relief, other facets were not amenable to palliative care.

The article will be freely accessible for a limited period here:

Publication date: 5 November 2012