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 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.