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Poll: Many doctors back assisted suicide

Poll: Many doctors back assisted suicide
Houston Chronicle — Thursday, May 3, 2001

TODD ACKERMAN, Houston Chronicle Science Writer

Rank-and-file doctors favor physician-assisted suicide by nearly twice the rate of the elected leadership of the nation’s premier medical organization, according to a survey by a Baylor College of Medicine professor.

Some 44.5 percent of ordinary doctors participating in the survey said they favor legalization, compared with 23.5 percent of American Medical Association delegates.

AMA delegates consistently have adopted positions opposing physician- assisted suicide .

“This shows the AMA is pursuing a policy on which its membership is divided,” said Dr. Simon Whitney, a Baylor professor of family and community medicine and the lead author of the study. “That doesn’t mean the AMA is wrong, just that the grass roots and leadership have different concerns.”

The survey, published in the May issue of the JOURNAL OF GENERAL INTERNAL MEDICINE, is the first nationwide examination of all doctors’ views on physician-assisted suicide . Previous studies either asked all doctors in individual states or specialists nationally, such as cancer doctors.

Whitney said the opinion of the rank-and-file reflects concerns with their patients’ suffering, whereas AMA leaders are more apt to be concerned about the demands of making public policy, moral concerns and the difficulty of crafting legislation with all the necessary safeguards. He said he intentionally phrased the survey question broadly.

The survey found 61.6 percent of AMA delegates said they oppose physician-assisted suicide , compared with 33.9 percent of ordinary doctors.

Whitney, who described himself as “a cautious supporter” of legalization, stressed that, in his opinion, the survey showed no consensus. In no geographic region, doctor specialty or gender, did a majority of participants either oppose or favor legalization.

The exceptions involved self-defined political beliefs, the importance of religion to the individual and religious affiliation. Those who identified themselves as conservatives and who considered religion very important opposed physician- assisted suicide in larger numbers. Jewish doctors were more inclined to favor legalization and Catholic doctors to oppose it.

Whitney said older doctors were just as divided but held stronger opinions, with fewer characterizing themselves as unsure and more claiming assisted suicide “definitely” should or should not be legalized.

He attributes the question’s vague wording to the high number of respondents who said they were unsure – 22 percent of rank-and-file doctors and 15 percent of AMA delegates. He said a lot of people wrote on the questionnaire “it depends.”

The survey was conducted in the first half of 1997, before the 1998 legalization of physician- assisted suicide in Oregon, which was considered a breakthrough for advocates. Whitney said he would like to do the survey two more times, once to see if the Oregon law has affected physicians’ views and again to ask the question more narrowly.

The study randomly surveyed 1,320 physicians – 930 rank-and-file doctors and 390 AMA delegates – by questionnaire with a 71 percent response rate. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Physician- assisted suicide
Rank-and-file doctors favor physician- assisted suicide by nearly twice the rate of the American Medical Association elected leadership:

Rank-and-file doctors / AMA leadership

Physician- assisted suicide
Should definitely be illegal 20.4% – 43.5%.

Should probably be illegal 13.5% – 18.1%.

Should probably be legal 28.1% – 16.2%

Should definitely be legal 16.4% – 7.3%

Unsure 21.6% – 14.9%

Note: Percentage may not total 100 because of rounding.

Graph: Physician-assisted suicide (text) Physician- assisted suicide