Physician-Assisted Suicide Survey

Results of a national survey of 1,088 physicians revealed that a clear majority of physicians (57%) believe that it is ethical to assist an individual who, due to unbearable suffering, has made a rational choice to die, while 39% believe it is unethical.

In response to the Supreme Court's decision to hear a challenge to Oregon's Death With Dignity Act—the nation's only law on behalf of physician-assisted suicide—the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Social and Religious Research and HCD Research conducted the survey of physicians during the last week of February 2007. The margin of error for the study was plus or minus 3% at a 95% level of confidence.

The findings also indicated that a plurality of physicians polled (41%) endorse the legalization of physician-assisted suicide under a wide variety of circumstances, while 30% support its legalization in a few cases only, and 29% oppose legalizing it in all cases.

"Differences between political conservatives and liberals are significant throughout the survey," said Dr. Alan Mittleman, director of the Finkelstein Institute. Analysis of the responses on the ethicality of physician-assisted suicide and its legalization reveal the results correlate closely with doctors' political identity. A majority of self-identified conservatives (72%) think assisted suicide is unethical, while a majority of liberals (81%) believe it is ethical to assist a patient who has opted for suicide. Among conservatives, a majority (66%) oppose legalization. Among liberals, 64% broadly support it.

Although doctors tend to support legalization as a public policy, results are mixed when asked whether they would personally assist a patient's committing suicide. A plurality (46%) would not assist a patient for any reason. Thirty-four percent would assist a patient in a few cases, and 20% would assist under a wide variety of circumstances.

"In our recent studies, physicians have been uniform in their response to certain moral and ethical issues such as stem cell research, where 80% of physicians indicated they were in favor of the research," said Glenn Kessler, cofounder and managing partner, HCD Research. "It was somewhat of a contrast that physicians expressed a wide range of views regarding issues relating to physician-assisted suicide."

Those surveyed represent physicians from Christian (Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox Christian, and other), Jewish (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and secular), Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist religious traditions.

Other findings include:

  • Fifty-four percent believe that assisted suicide should be a matter between patient and doctor alone and that government should not regulate the practice. Forty-six percent say government has a legitimate interest in regulating it.
  • Were government to regulate assisted suicide, a majority (55%) would have it regulated at the federal level, 46% at the state level. Among political conservatives, 71% would prefer it regulated by federal law, while 56% of liberals prefer state regulation.
  • When asked to describe the source of their attitudes toward physician-assisted suicide, a plurality of doctors offered their understanding of their obligations as physicians (40%), followed by their general moral values (24%), their view of patient autonomy (20%), and their religious beliefs (13%), among other factors.
  • Religious identity correlates with attitudes toward the ethical status of assisting in suicide. Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Jews believe in the majority that it is unethical to assist, while Conservative, Reform, and secular Jews say assistance is ethical.

Physician-Assisted Suicide Survey