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Americans Support Physician-Assisted Suicide For Terminally Ill

Voters in Massachusetts were the latest to weigh in on whether it should be legal for doctors to prescribe drugs to help terminally ill patients end their lives.

The measure was controversial, and on Election Day it fell just short.

Before the vote, we wondered how Americans viewed physician-assisted suicide. So we asked in early October.

The results from the latest NPR-Truven Health Analytics Health Poll show that most Americans favor physician-assisted suicide for people with less than 6 months to live.

Overall, 55 percent of respondents favored it, and 45 percent were opposed. Those proportions were unchanged from July 2011, when Truven asked the same questions.

Support for the idea varied by age and income.

Fifty-six percent of people 65 and older opposed physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill; 44 percent supported it. Among people younger than 35, the results were reversed: 59 percent for and 41 percent against.

People in households that made $100,000 or more a year were more likely to support doctors helping terminally ill people to commit suicide. Same for people with at least a college education.

Dr. Marcia Angell, a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, has argued that dying patients should have a legal right to end their own lives. Pain from prostate cancer drove her father to kill himself with a pistol he had long kept in his bedside table.

Angell supported the Massachusetts measure. Physician-assisted suicide isn't "a choice between life and death," she told WBUR. "It's a choice of the exact timing and the manner of death, because these patients are dying."

Disabilities rights advocate John Kelly strenuously opposed the Massachusetts question, calling it "a recipe for abuse."

Truven Health's Dr. Ray Fabius said, "There's a majority opinion that physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill people is now acceptable. It's stable and steady."

Even so, the support isn't universal. It drops below a majority among the elderly and those who make less than $25,000 a year, as well as people with a high school education or less.

"People who have more wherewithal, or more means, may feel that they have better control over this," Fabius said. "They may like this option. People of lesser means might be concerned this could happen to them."

We also asked whether physician-assisted suicide should be allowed for people in severe pain who aren't terminally ill or for those with disabilities. A solid majority — 71 percent — opposed the idea, with only 29 percent in favor of it. The results were the same as in 2011.

And the responses on this question were consistently against the proposition, regardless of age, income and education.

The telephone poll, conducted Oct. 1-11, gathered responses from 3,017 people. The margin of error was plus or minus 1.8 percentage points.

You can find the questions and full results here.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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