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Religious Views on Doctor-Assisted Suicide

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More people in America oppose doctor-assisted suicide than support it, but the difference is small. When religious groups are looked at, though, the differences become much larger. Evangelicals and Black Protestants are more than twice as likely to oppose doctor-assisted suicide than to support it. In contrast, the religiously unaffiliated, a group which includes most atheists and agnostics, is more than twice as likely to support laws which allow for doctor-assisted suicide than to oppose them.

At the same time, the number of people who agree that there are circumstances in which a patient should be allowed to die is dropping. This suggests that some strong shifts are occurring in America when it comes to people's views on handling terminal illness and end-of-life care, shifts that are connected strongly to religion and religious ideology.

 

Religious Views on End-of-Life Care

In a poll conducted by Pew Research in March and April 2013, with a margin of error of ±2.9%, U.S. adults were asked about whether there were circumstances in which medical staff should be allowed to die or not. The results for different religious groups were:

  There are circumstances in which
a patient should be allowed to die
Medical staff should do everything possible to
save a patient's life in all cases
Don't Know
All Adults 66% 31% 3%
       
White Mainline Protestant 76% 21% 3%
White Evangelical Protestant 68% 26% 6%
Black Protestant 41% 54% 5%
       
White Catholic 80% 18% 2%
Hispanic Catholic 32% 66% 2%
       
Unaffiliated 73% 26% 1%

It's worth noting that the religiously unaffiliated (which includes most atheists and agnostics) are not the strongest supporters of the idea that patients should be allowed to choose to die. That position is usually associated with a more liberal outlook and in most polls the unaffiliated group tends to express the most liberal opinions; here, though, White Mainline Protestants and White Catholics are more "liberal".

There is probably a racial or cultural element here, as demonstrated by the large difference between White Catholics and Hispanic Catholics. If people's opinions on the matter were determined entirely or even mostly by religious dogma, the numbers for those two groups should be much closer.

 

Religious Views on Doctor-Assisted Suicide

In the same Pew Research poll, people were asked what they thought about laws to allow doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. Doctor-assisted suicide usually involves a physician taking active steps to hasten the end of a person's life, for example by administering an overdose of drugs that would otherwise be used simply to alleviate pain.

  Approve Disapprove
All Adults 47% 49%
     
White Mainline Protestant 61% 36%
White Evangelical Protestant 30% 67%
Black Protestant 22% 72%
     
White Catholic 55% 43%
Hispanic Catholic 33% 63%
     
Unaffiliated 66% 31%

Opinions on passive suicide - letting a patient die rather than intervening - have changed; when comparing 1990 to 2013, twice as many U.S. adults say that doctors should do everything possible to preserve a patient's life, even when they are in great pain and have no hope of survival. In contrast, opinions on active suicide - also known as doctor-assisted suicide, where the physician takes positive steps towards shortening life - have remained stable.

The numbers above make it clear that the religious divide on doctor-assisted is much larger than it is with simply withholding treatment. While the number of white evangelicals who agree that it can be permissible to withhold treatment isn't much lower than the religiously unaffiliated, the numbers are almost the exact opposite when it comes to doctor-assisted suicide: 67% of white evangelicals oppose it while 66% of the unaffiliated support it.

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