Letting doctors help a terminally ill person end their life is controversial.
Though physician-assisted suicide is technically legal in five states, that right has mostly been exercised in Washington, Vermont, and most-famously, Oregon, where Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer, recently ended her life on Nov. 1.
Americans in general support the right to physician-assisted suicide, though the number varies depending on how the question is asked — as of 2013 it was as high as 71% in support, if described as “end the patient’s life by some painless means.” That dropped to 51% if it was described as a helping a patient “commit suicide.”
But what about the physicians themselves?
According to a survey published Dec. 17 by Medscape, an online professional network and information source for physicians, 54% of doctors answered the question “should physician-assisted suicide be allowed” with a yes.
“I believe terminal illnesses such as metastatic cancers or degenerative neurological diseases rob a human of his/her dignity,” one respondent told Medscape.
That doctor continued: “Provided there is no shred of doubt that the disease is incurable and terminal, I would support a patient’s decision to end their life, and I would also wish the same option was available in my case should the need arise.”
More than half of doctors support helping a terminal patient end their life, the highest that number has been ever since Medscape started conducting an ethics survey in 2010.
For this survey, Medscape asked more than 21,000 physicians a list of ethical questions. More than 17,000 of those were US doctors, while 4,000 European physicians responded.
Europeans were less likely to say physician-assisted suicide should be allowed, with only 41% saying yes, the same percentage that said no (18% responded with “it depends.”).
But physician-assisted suicide wasn’t the only ethical dilemma that doctors answered questions about. Questions ranged from whether or not it’s ok to date patients to questions about performing abortions.
Here are a few more notable responses:
Only 1% of doctors think it’s ok to date a current patient, but 22% might consider a romantic encounter if six months to a year has passed since treatment, and 10% say it depends. That’s a change — back in 2010, even after six months only 12% said it was ok.
- European and US doctors have different attitudes about how to best tell a patient about a terminal diagnosis. Only 21% of US doctors said they might soften the news to try and give a little hope, while 46% of European doctors said they might soften the news.
- When asked if they would perform an abortion even if it were against their personal beliefs, 44% of doctors said yes, while 41% said no (15% said it depends). Notably, all doctors answered that question, so it included some who were imagining how they might feel if they were opposed to abortion.
- Various questions earned more “it depends” answers than affirmative or negative responses — which reflects the difficulties with ethics in general. For example, 43% of doctors said said “it depends” when asked if it was right to provide intensive care to a newborn who would either die soon or would survive with “an objectively terrible quality of life,” while 31% said it was right and 27% said it was not.
You can check out part one of the full report over at Medscape.
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