NEW YORK--A recent Gallup opinion poll shows that Americans are split on the issue of legalizing physician-assisted suicide, but strongly favor hospice care. In the survey of 1,007 respondents, age 18 and over, 70% said they would seek hospice care for themselves if they were terminally ill. Half of the respondents said they favored legalizing physician-assisted suicide, but only 35% said they would choose it for themselves if they became terminally ill.
The survey, commissioned by the National Hospice Organization (NHO), a hospice advocacy group, found that the biggest fear associated with death was being a burden to friends and family, followed by fear of pain.
Women were more likely than men to say they would seek hospice care and were also more knowledgeable about hospice care. Awareness of hospice care was also higher among the more affluent and educated. Two thirds of the respondents said they had hospice care in their community. Those who lived in the Midwest were most likely to say hospice care was available, and those who lived in the East or South were least likely to say so.
The National Hospice Organization, founded in 1978 as a nonprofit, public-benefit charitable organization advocating for the needs of terminally ill persons, has set up a toll-free Hospice Helpline at 1-800-658-8898 to link individuals with hospices in their local communities.
At a press conference sponsored by the NHO, Michael Levy, MD, PhD, director, Supportive Oncology Program and Pain Management Center, Fox Chase Cancer Center, commented on the fact that 50% of the respondents believed physician-assisted suicide should be legal, but far fewer were willing to choose it for themselves if they were terminally ill.
"There's a real difference between wanting something to be legal so that you can choose it versus actually wanting it. What we see here is that the American public wants the freedom to choose," Dr. Levy said.
Experiencing hospice care can make terminally ill people change their minds about committing suicide, said Marcia Lattanzi-Licht, RN, LPC, co-founder of the Boulder County Hospice, Colorado.
"In my experience," she said, "people often say they want physician-assisted suicide as an option, but when they are being cared for by a hospice with adequate symptom relief--with all the services that hospice provides plus the attention to the family--that wish drops away. It is not brought up again because their concerns are being adequately addressed."
Public support for physician-assisted suicide is nurtured by press accounts of Dr. Jack Kevorkian's activities, Ms. Lattanzi-Licht said in an interview with Oncology News International.
"The images of Kevorkian's patients are always of people in extreme pain. The public is misled into thinking that terminally ill people are always in pain. Yet pain is so treatable. Nobody gets to read stories about people who die at home, without pain and with their loved ones around them, thanks to hospice support."
Last year nearly 390,000 patients across the country received hospice care, said Jay Mahoney, NHO president. "It remains the overwhelming choice for comprehensive compassionate end-of-life care," he said.