A YouGov poll lat week for “Dignity in Death” (what used to be called the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) found 76% of respondents supported a change in the law to allow patients with a terminal illness to receive a prescription from a doctor to allow them to commit suicide.

The survey didn’t ask about people unable to administer drugs themselves, or raise any questions about exactly what safeguards they would think necessary (it was also very coy about using the words euthanasia and suicide, presumably for the same reasons the VES changed it’s name). The figures though, are broadly in line with every other poll of the general public taken in recent years, which to some degree or another have all shown majority support for euthanasia.

Last year a YouGov/Telegraph poll found 87% of people thought the terminally ill should be able to ask for medicial assistance to help them die if they were unable to do so themselves. A Populus/Sun poll found 66% support for voluntary euthanasia (and actually used the “e word”, the lower score perhaps suggesting that the VES were right to change their name!). In 2004 a YouGov poll for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society found 80% approval for the specific proposals in the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill. The British Social Attitudes Survey has asked about euthanasia several times, and consistently found support for doctors being able, on the patients’ request, to end the life of a patient with a painful incurable disease (77% support in 1983, 75% support in 1984, 79% support in 1989 and 82% support in 1994). Any way you cut it, polls of the general public show they support euthanasia.

What is somewhat more confusing, is that polls also suggest that, while the public support euthanasia, they agree with many of the concerns raised by opponents of euthanasia. Another poll earlier this month, carried out for the anti-euthanasia group Care Not Killing by Communicate Research, found that 65% of people thought that legalising euthanasia might mean that vulnerable people could feel pressured into opting for suicide, 72% thought doctors with moral objections to euthanasia might be pressured into complying, 75% thought that people with treatable illnesses like depression may end up applying and 73% thought legalised euthanasia would make it harder to detect a future equivalent of Harold Shipman. The YouGov poll from last year found a similar situation – then 51% thought that old people would feel pressured into committing suicide and 47% thought that a “significant” number of murders would take place disguised as mercy killings.

There are two obvious explantions for the apparant contradiction – either people have considered problems such as people feeling under pressure to opt for euthanasia and the possibility that people might commit murders and disguise them as mercy killings, but on balance think that legalised euthanasia would still be a good thing, or people who tell pollsters they support euthanasia haven’t really considered these drawbacks, and public support might well fall if there were to be a broader public debate on the issue. Since the Joffe Bill was blocked in the Lords last week, we are unlikely to find out in the immediate future.

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