Health

More Americans say doctors should do everything to save terminally ill

Nearly one-third of adults polled by Pew oppose allowing patients with incurable illnesses to die

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While a majority of American adults say that in some circumstances patients suffering an incurable disease have the moral right to end their lives, a growing minority says that medical professionals should do everything possible to save them, according to a Pew Research Center survey on end-of-life decisions published Thursday.

After polling nearly 2,000 adults, researchers found that 31 percent oppose allowing hastened death for terminally ill patients, up from 22 percent in 2005 and 15 percent in 1990. When asked what their personal end-of-life preferences would be if they had an incurable disease that made it difficult to function, 46 percent of responders said they would want everything to be done to save their lives.

When being treated for terminal illnesses, however, patients often shift their focus from living as long as possible to being comfortable, said Dr. Ursula McVeigh, director of the Fletcher Allen Palliative Care Service and assistant professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

"Early in the illness, a patient's goal is extending life, and as providers we do all that we can to control their disease and help them live as long as possible," McVeigh told Al Jazeera. "And people also have goals of, when living, being functional and not suffering."

Whether patients prefer to extend life or not, McVeigh, who has treated hundreds of end-of-life patients, said it's important for the physician to provide "space and comfort and support so that people are able to make the best decisions for themselves with the right information."

Religion often plays a crucial role in that decision making, said Cary Funk, senior researcher at the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project and Social & Demographic Trends project.

"These are the kinds of issues that affect a lot of people's personal lives," Funk, who worked on the Pew report, told Al Jazeera. Almost half of the adults polled said they knew someone who was terminally ill in the last five years. "Religion is part of that picture. It's fitting, since these issues really speak to core issues about life or death."

Although many religious organizations oppose ending a terminally ill person's life, the majority of mainline white Protestants, white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics said people have a moral right to end their life if they are in a great deal of pain.

Funk said this trend "speaks to the complexity" of the issue at hand: "What the official church position is might not be what the individual decides."

Other factors include race, ethnicity, age and the amount of thought an individual puts into end-of-life treatment.

"People who said they've given (end of life) more thought said they are more inclined to accept the position of a patient's moral right to die," Funk said.

When surveyors asked people whether they approve or disapprove of laws regarding physician-assisted suicide, Pew found that Americans remain strongly divided. Of those surveyed, 49 percent disapprove of physician-assisted suicide, while 47 percent approve — showing almost no change in attitude from a previous questionnaire done in 2005. Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont allow physicians to practice doctor-assisted suicide.

Sean Crowley, media relations manager at Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life nonprofit organization, drew a distinction between "'two-thirds of Americans (66 percent) say there are at least some situations in which a patient should be allowed to die,' but only '47 percent approve of laws that would allow a physician to prescribe lethal doses of drugs that a terminally ill patient could use to commit suicide,' a 19-point difference in support for the same outcome. 

"This Pew poll reinforces the fact that using the inaccurate, biased and pejorative term 'assisted-suicide' grossly underestimates public support for the medical practice of aid in dying and death-with-dignity laws," Crowley told Al Jazeera. 

McVeigh — who is from Vermont, a state with legal physician aid in dying — said she believes doctor-assisted suicide is about civil rights, but she has never had a patient specifically ask that a physician end his or her life.

"It's something that people want the option for, but in reality, if people navigate the end of their lives, it's exceedingly rare that that's an option that an individual would find that serves their goals of care."

Paul Rondeau, executive director of American Life League, does not endorse euthanasia and, equating it with abortion, says it devalues life.

"Abortion and euthanasia are exactly the same issue. You have living human beings of equal value that, only for political purposes, have people say they're not worthy of life," Rondeau told Al Jazeera.

"People are starting to realize, well, what if that's me or my mom or my grandmother," Rondeau added.

Despite the public opinion shift, McVeigh said, it should not matter "what the population of the United States thinks what a physician should do."

"It really comes down to what that individual patient thinks a physician should do."

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