October 22, 2014

Americans of all ages divided over doctor-assisted suicide laws

Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer, has gone public with her plans to take her own life soon after Oct. 26, her husband’s birthday; she is using her story to make the case for more widespread laws allowing doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. Maynard moved to Oregon, one of five states that allow the practice, in order to obtain medication for the purpose of ending her life.

A report issued by the Institute of Medicine (part of the National Academy of Sciences) last month called for an overhaul of end-of-life care nationwide, including, for example, a greater emphasis on advance care planning and Medicare funding for home health services. A chairman of the committee that conducted the study told The New York Times that “the current system is geared towards doing more, more, more, and that system by definition is not necessarily consistent with what patients want.”

Views on doctor-assisted suicide vary little by age groupA Pew Research Center survey conducted last year found that two-thirds of Americans say there are circumstances in which a patient should be allowed to die, as opposed to doctors and nurses always doing everything possible to save the life of a patient. But U.S. adults are more divided about laws that allow doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients, with 47% in favor of such laws and 49% opposed. Views on doctor-assisted suicide are little changed since 2005.

While there are sizable differences in opinion on this issue by racial and ethnic group, religious group and political ideology, there are, at most, modest differences among different age groups. Maynard’s generation is no more supportive of such laws than are older Americans: 45% of those ages 18-29 approve of assisted-suicide laws, while 54% oppose them.

The Pew Research survey also asked several questions about whether people have a moral right to end their own lives in certain situations, and, again, there are no clear patterns regarding how people of different ages feel about the morality of suicide. For example, a majority of Americans (56%) say that a person has a moral right to suicide when the person has an incurable disease, with, at most, modest differences among age groups. The same is true in the case of a person who is suffering great pain and has no hope of improvement, with 62% saying there is a moral right to suicide in such a situation.

Clear differences do arise between younger and older people on some other questions about end-of-life issues. Our survey asked people what they would tell their doctor if they personally had a disease with no hope of improvement and they were suffering a great deal of physical pain. Young adults are far more likely than older Americans to say they would want their doctor to do everything possible to save their life — 53% of those ages 18-29 say this, compared with about a quarter (24%) of those ages 50 and older.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many young adults have not given much thought to end-of-life decisions. Just a quarter of adults under 30 say they’ve given a great deal of thought to their own wishes for medical treatments at the end of life, while roughly four-in-ten (41%) say they’ve given such matters not much thought or none at all.

Topics: Religion and Society, Health, Religious Beliefs and Practices

  1. Photo of Michael Lipka

    is a senior editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Leslie3 years ago

    While interesting, the survey and report consider end-of-life (death) from a very limited perspective. Most elderly die of old age. They do not have “incurable” diseases that are “life-threatening,” nor do they seek medical care to “cure” or “save” them.

    We have a lifetime accumulation of conditions and disabilities that, together, make continuing life impossible. Pain is only one of many considerations. Competence, autonomy, independence and all the other things that distinguish individuals during their lives are just as important with death and dying.

    That medicine and religion still dominate, try to control and define all end-of-life (deaths) in old age, provides little practical purpose, help or comfort. Dying and death have always been individual acts. The circumstances and time can remain with most elderly individuals.

  2. Paul Andersen3 years ago

    End of life issues and options are extremely personal in nature. They should remain so without dogma inflicted by those who wish to control. Compassion. Choices. Dignity. Liberty. Please allow every American the freedom to access their preference in a loving safe environment free of judgement.

  3. eric burns3 years ago

    Believers in a god should have no right at all to dictate to non-believers how and when they should die!

  4. Nan Evans Bush3 years ago

    As long as you keep referring to end-of-life intervention as “assisted suicide,” of course it will be contentious.

    Brittany Maynard and similar patients are not killing themselves; an incurable disease is killing them. Intervention by the person or physician does not institute the death but only affects its circumstances and timing.

    Of course most healthy young people will vote enthusiastically for life at any cost. They have neither seen, experienced, nor thought about the kinds of circumstances which make such legal permission essential.

    With all reverence to God, there is in some folks a kind of religious insistence on what is allowed which amounts to moral priggishness and sadism. The God of “I love you, so go in agony” is an intellectual concept, not a moral imperative.

    1. lucie noir3 years ago

      Thank you Nan,
      your comments were wise, eloquent and poignant. I wish you would start a blog on this topic.

  5. Bernie Jacobs3 years ago

    I am 87 years old…In good health..Active…..and I have a wife of 64 years who is not in good
    Shape….we both agree we want a pill…we do not want to go thru nursing homes, where
    You are stored waiting to die..At great cost and terrible surroundings..I think we should be
    Able to consult with our physicians….tell him/her of our wishes and get his support..I am not suggesting a pill when the sickness is not terminal…Just let me decide how far I want to go
    Before I say adios…get the government off my back

    1. eric burns3 years ago

      Good on you and enjoy it while you can! It is not the government that denies you the right to a peaceful death of your choice, but religions of various hues. I live in a country where every survey comes up with about 70% of people being in favour of assisted suicide, but no politician has the guts to vote for it in the parliament because religious nuts make sure to campaign in his/her seat to oust them.

  6. William Brandenburg3 years ago

    There is only one true God. He ad he alone is in control of our lives. Never give up.
    Love in Christ!

    1. Eric T3 years ago

      If your God alone is control of our lives, is He responsible for all the deaths from the ebola virus?