Mileah Kromer: Public Opinion and Death with Dignity

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By Mileah Kromer

In late February, the Goucher Poll asked Marylanders to weigh in on a bill that would allow terminally ill patients to obtain a prescription for a fatal dose of drugs from a willing doctor. Respondents were informed that the bill requires the patient to be mentally competent, self-administer the drugs, and have less than six months to live. Sixty percent of residents supported the policy, and 35 percent opposed it. About six weeks later, the bill introduced by Delegate Shane Pendergrass and Senator Ron Young was tabled in committee.

Maryland was not alone in introducing and hotly debating “death with dignity” bills during its legislation session. Fifteen other states are considering—or did consider—“death with dignity” bills during their most recent legislative sessions. Some of these bills were introduced in previous sessions and were appearing before their legislatures for a second time. These different state bills typically contain the same general provisions of mental competence, self-administration, and a physician-confirmed terminal diagnosis.

According to Gallup, around 70 percent of Americans believe physicians should be able to legally end a patient’s life by some painless means. Citizen perceptions toward right-to-die legislation have remained consistent during the time period demarcated by the high-profile Terri Schiavo and Brittany Maynard cases. Although question wording and framing matters—support diminishes when the word “suicide” is present in the question—a majority of Americans support it, no matter how the question is asked.

In Maryland, the Goucher Poll shows resident support of the issue is clearly divided along religious lines: 80 percent of residents who attend religious services rarely or never supported it, compared with 37 percent of those who attend services once a week or more. Male, highly educated, younger, and white Marylanders expressed higher levels of support, which aligns with the higher levels of religiosity among females, those with high school diplomas or less, older citizens, and African Americans.  Perhaps most interesting is that levels of support or opposition are of the intra-party rather than the inter-party variety: Self-identified Republicans, Democrats, and Independents expressed similar levels of support and opposition.

A state-by-state consideration of this issue provides the best opportunity to understand the relationship between public opinion and passage of this kind of legislation. For example, in Connecticut polling indicated that 63 percent of voters support allowing doctors to legally prescribe lethal drugs to help terminally ill patients end their own lives, which is similar to the situation in Maryland, but the Connecticut bill still failed to make it out of committee. In New Jersey, the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll recently found that 63 percent of the state’s citizens support an aid-in-dying bill passed by the state House in December; the bill is awaiting consideration in the state Senate. The Massachusetts General Court is considering legislation once again, after death with dignity was narrowly defeated via ballot referendum in 2012 (polling months before the election reflected national sentiment on the issue, but steadily narrowed as Election Day approached). In general, it appears that public support does not seamlessly translate into the adoption of death with dignity provisions, and vocal minorities have been successful blocking the measures.

Other statewide experiences suggest that any path to a right-to-die provision in Maryland will be hard-fought. Death with dignity advocates made significant headway promoting their bill this session at the same time opponents demonstrated that public support can be neutralized by compelling stories (see O.J. Brigance) and focused lobbying efforts. Even if legislators can shepherd it through a difficult legislative process next year, the threat of a veto and possible ballot measure will loom. If Delegate Pendergrass and Senator Young make good on their promise to introduce the issue next year, the Goucher Poll will check back in with statewide residents and gauge opinion on this contentious social issue—because even if public opinion can be mitigated, it should never be silenced.

Mileah Kromer, Ph.D., is Director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Goucher College.

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