Changing Attitudes On Suicide And Euthanasia

We had such fun with abortion attitudes, today this: From the General Social Survey, a picture of the support for suicide and euthanasia by reason from 1977 until 20061.

GSS Suicide Attitudes
GSS Suicide Attitudes

GSS questions on suicide and euthanasia are asked of about 1,000 (order of magnitude) respondents every one to two years. Here are the questions on suicide and euthanasia attitudes, keyed to the legend in the figure:

  • Euthanasia Disease = “When a person has a disease that cannot be cured, do you think doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient’s life by some painless means if the patient and his family request it?”
  • Suicide Disease = “Do you think a person has the right to end his or her own life if this person has an incurable disease?”
  • Suicide Tired Life = “Do you think a person has the right to end his or her own life if this person is tired of living and ready to die?”
  • Suicide Dishonor = “Do you think a person has the right to end his or her own life if this person has dishonored his or her family?”
  • Suicide Bankrupt = “Do you think a person has the right to end his or her own life if this person has gone bankrupt?”

Since, as the old logical saw has it, “Socrates is mortal”, we know that everybody will die. Suicide and euthanasia are two of the ways death comes early to individuals. Suicide is when a person kills himself; or that’s probably what most respondent’s thought the term meant. Euthanasia may be a person killing himself, too, but many who answered this survey could have interpreted euthanasia as when another (like a “doctor”) kills a person. This act isn’t always considered murder because the person being euthanized wants to die and the person doing the killing might be wearing a white coat, which confers authority.

Two trends are evident: the gradual (more or less) increase in support for active early death, and the differences in reasons for support.

As in the attitudes on abortion, there are two distinct groupings. Support for early death is high if the respondent believed some hypothetical person had a fatal disease (which of course would end the life of this hypothetical person earlier than if they did not have the disease, all other things equal). And support is low if the respondent believed the hypothetical person was trying to get out of trouble (dishonor, bankruptcy) or to relieve the the tedium of life.

Support for “assisted” suicide, or euthanasia, is consistently higher than for unassisted suicide. A priori one would have guessed that these two lines would overlap. The difference may lie in imagining the respondent’s trusting the authority of some “competent” medical authority who says, “Kill him now and spare him pain—or save fees.” Perhaps people feel doctors know better who should die. Good thing doctors (and other “health” care providers) never make mistakes: if they did, the wrong person could be sent on his way unexpectedly.

Stopping a determined man from killing himself is difficult to impossible, which everybody knows. Therefore many may have interpreted these questions not of “rights” but of morality: is it morality allowable to kill oneself? If that’s true, then about half of us now think it’s okay to play Russian solitaire.

It’s perhaps not surprising that people are so much less inclined to grant the right of suicide for the guilty, i.e. those who have dishonored their families or blew through all their money. But isn’t it curious that more people support the idea of somebody offing himself out of boredom? The guilty must pay by staying alive to live with their sins: the dull may go on their way.


1See the post on abortion attitudes for information about the GSS, its limitations, and the over-confidence which can result by taking the results too seriously.


  1. bob sykes

    One problem with euthanasia is who decides.

    In the UK under the Liverpool Protocol, patients are put down at the discretion of the physicians without consultation with either the patient or the patient’s relatives. The patient is sedated and then denied food and water. These are not isolated cases as several tens of thousands of people have been killed this way.

    The Netherlands has a similar policy.

    A related issue is the abortion of fetuses with Down’s Syndrome and girl fetuses.

    These policies are so close to Nazi practice that people should be nervous about it.

    The position of the Catholic Church on these issues is not absurd and deserves a hearing even if we decide to disagree.

  2. Just read this yesterday:

    (So we are now calling it “put down”, using the same ridiculous term we use for killing a pet that is no longer wanted or old and in pain? We are Killing these people and pets. The reason may be justified, just as self-defense can result in death, but unless you want to call self-defense “putting down” the attacker, it is best to use words that convey what actually happens. The person themselves or someone else KILLS them.)

  3. Will

    If we have the means to artificially prolong a life then we have taken the decision from God and placed it in our own hands.

    If you believe that it is wrong to artificially adjust someone’s life span in one direction, then why not the other?

    I support euthanasia in some, but not all, cases. If you’re hooked up to a machine to live, and require the machine to live, why is it so evil to take someone off the machine and put them on another that will make them at least feel comfortable?

  4. Sander van der Wal

    I would not be surprised if the suicide approval rates in a different culture (Japan comes to mind) would be different from those in the USA.

    Regarding the use of a protocol similar to the Liverpool Protocol, the Dutch Governments website on Palliative Sedation is right here:

    Translating the relevant bits: with Palliative Sedation in Holland, a patient is kept asleep with medicins to relieve him from the pain associated with the illness. This is normal medical practice and not a form of Euthanesia.

    In particular, The patient is not supposed to die earlier, although it is possible that the patient will die because of the treatment (like patients can die due to unforseen problems during an operation, my interpretation). Palliative sedation is therefore not a part of the law regarding Euthanesia. The difference with Euthanisa is that in that case the doctor will administer drugs that will kill the patient.

    A doctor may use Palliative Sedation if he expects that the patient will die within two weeks time.

    A request for Palliative Sedation can come from the patient, from close relatives or caretakers. If a patient is “wilsonbekwaam” (incompetent is quite likely not the right translation, think of a person with severe dementia) the doctor will talk with the patients representative.

    There’s also a system for Palliative Care, that is about the government helping volunteers who stand by dying patients.

    And finally, in Holland Euthanesia is still very much against the law. The difference is that if doctors follow a certain protocol, he will not be prosecuted. Also, performing Euthanesia is not duty the doctor must perform and is not a right the patient can claim.

  5. Bob Ludwick

    For me the operative words in the five questions above are ‘his or her own life’.

    I am somewhat of an absolutist on this in that if it is indeed ‘his or her own life’ he or she has the RIGHT to end it for whatever reason, including his or her unhappiness with the quality of sunrise on a given morning. They do NOT have the right to REQUIRE that someone else ‘do the deed’ for them.

    What we are rapidly progressing toward however is the policy that citizens are the chattel of the state and that the state is responsible for their care and maintenance. Under that scenario, the state is also responsible for determining whether the quality of life of the citizen is too poor, that the expense to the state is too great to justify the measures necessary to maintain it, or both, and that the STATE will make the decision as to whether the citizen will be ‘put down’, either directly or by withholding medical care and/or sustenance.

    It is coming sooner than you think and it will not be optional for ‘him or her’.

  6. john robertson

    Your life your call.
    Life, the sexually transmitted, terminal disease.
    The govt deciding who has the right or need to die is an insane proposition.
    The most useless people on the planet, deciding that the elderly and infirm must go, oh yeah, thats really going to work.
    Its massive cynicism to live off of the productive people, and then convince them to die, when they are eligible for some of their own wealth back.

  7. Ye Olde Statistician

    If you believe that it is wrong to artificially adjust someone’s life span in one direction, then why not the other?

    If you believe that it is wrong to artificially adjust someone’s health in one direction, then why not the other?

    The answer is that one is a good, the other the privation of a good. It’s not symmetric. If it is wrong to poke someone’s eyes out, that does not make it wrong to prescribe eyeglasses.

  8. Milton Hathaway

    The x-axis in the “Support …” graph isn’t particularly interesting. Just listing the data for one year pretty much tells the same story.

    Based on my personal experience, I suspect that a much more interesting graph could be created with an x-axis of “respondent’s age”. Young people would tend to have an idealistic view of euthanasia that they have acquired from exposure to works of fiction, whereas older people are more likely to have acquired some first-hand experience.

    But perhaps unlike others, I intend to put my learnings into practice. In some situations where euthanasia was ‘on the table’, the elephant in the room was an inheritance that was dwindling. When choosing between drawing down retirement savings on an as-needed basis and purchasing an annuity, I can definitely see the appeal of the former. It maximizes the heirs’ inheritance upon early death and provides a sense of security against large unexpected expenses. But it can place an enormous emotional burden on caretakers who are also heirs. It can be a source of great conflict between heirs, too.

    On the other hand, sinking all your retirement funds into an annuity may encourage your heir/caretakers to extend your life longer than you would prefer.

    So ideally, splitting retirement funds between inheritables and annuities should be done to minimize the influence on end-of-life decisions. I’ve got a bit of time left, so I’m still pondering on this. I once broached the subject with a couple of the kids, and they were appalled that I would think that monetary considerations would play into such decisions. Ah, the blissful ignorance of youth.

  9. “If you believe that it is wrong to artificially adjust someone’s life span in one direction, then why not the other?”

    Because extending life is not an irreversible decision like ending it is.

  10. Will

    Ye old: it’s your choice to get eye glasses, and your choice to refuse them. In one case you’re letting nature take its course, and the other you’re not. Either way, poor example as death is final and eye gouging is something you’ll have to live with. I have yet to hear someone complain that the embalming fluid needle hurt.. Heh

    Sheri: if you’re terminally ill, or your body is so damaged that you’re just waiting for nature to deliver the fatal knockout, the outcomes are the same. It’s the “getting there” that’s different. Assisted suicide is far more humane than forcing someone to rot.

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