Doctor-Assisted Deaths Didn’t Soar After Legalization

Public support for physician-assisted death has plateaued in the United States, and the practice hasn’t soared as some had feared, a new study finds.

In places where it’s legal, physician-aided death remains rare. It’s confined mostly to cancer patients who are white, wealthy and well-educated, researchers found.

“The vast majority of dying patients don’t use physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia — don’t even think about it,” said lead researcher Ezekiel Emanuel, a physician who is the chairman of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Less than 0.5 percent of deaths in Washington state are from physician-assisted suicide,” he said. Washington is one of five U.S. states where physician-aided death is legal. The others are California, Montana, Oregon and Vermont.

Physician-aided death happens when a doctor prescribes lethal drugs patients take themselves. Euthanasia — which is illegal in the United States — occurs when a doctor administers the life-ending medication.

Twenty states are considering legalizing physician-assisted death, including New York, according to Death with Dignity, a group that advocates for assisted dying.

But public support has leveled off since the 1990s to between 47 percent and 69 percent of the U.S. population, the study authors found.

If Oregon and Washington are an indication, most patients choosing to hasten their death are in hospice or palliative care.

The main motivators? Fear of losing autonomy, no longer enjoying activities, and other psychological concerns, Emanuel said. Pain is usually not the chief driver, he noted.

Concerns that doctors would be swamped with requests from desperate patients appear unfounded. Less than 20 percent of U.S. doctors say they’ve been asked to assist in euthanasia or physician-assisted dying.

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