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Americans divided on whether doctors should help terminally ill patients die

NEW YORK — More than two-thirds of Americans believe there are circumstances in which a patient should be allowed to die, but they are closely divided on whether it should be legal for a doctor to help terminally ill patients end their own lives by prescribing fatal drugs, a new AP-Ipsos poll finds.
    The results were released Tuesday, just days before Dr. Jack Kevorkian is freed from a Michigan prison after serving more than eight years for second-degree murder in the poisoning of a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
    Kevorkian’s defiant assisted suicide campaign, which he waged for years before his conviction, fueled nationwide debate about patients’ right to die and the role that physicians should play.
    Though demonized by his critics as a callous killer, Kevorkian — who is to be released Friday — maintains relatively strong public support. The AP-Ipsos poll found that 53 percent of those surveyed thought he should not have been jailed; 40 percent supported his imprisonment. The results were similar to an ABC News poll in 1999 that found 55 percent disagreeing with his conviction.
    The new AP-Ipsos poll asked whether it should be legal for doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to help terminally ill patients end their own lives — a practice currently allowed in Oregon but in no other states. Forty-eight percent said it should be legal; 44 percent said it should be illegal.
    More broadly, 68 percent said there are circumstances when a patient should be allowed to die, while 30 percent said doctors and nurses, in all circumstances, should do everything possible to save the life of a patient.
    A majority of respondents — 55 percent — said they would not consider ending their own lives if ill with a terminal disease. Thirty-five percent said they would consider that option.
    Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law took effect in 1997. Through last year, 292 people — mostly stricken with cancer — have died under its provisions, which allow terminally ill, mentally competent adults to administer life-ending medication prescribed by a physician.
    In addition to Oregon, three European countries — Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands — authorize assistance by doctors in the deaths of patients.
    Oregon’s law has been reaffirmed by state voters and has survived intense legal challenges, but has yet to be emulated in any other state. Bills have been defeated by lawmakers in Vermont, Hawaii, Wisconsin and Washington; ballot measures to allow physician-assisted death have lost in Washington, California, Michigan and Maine.
    The current battleground is California, where a bill similar to Oregon’s law is moving through the legislature. Even if it were to win final passage, there is uncertainty whether Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would sign it; he recently suggested the issue should go directly to voters as a ballot initiative.
    Assemblywoman Patty Berg, a co-author of the bill, said it gives a terminally ill patient ‘‘the power to chose the time, place and circumstances of their death.’’ She contended that most Californians support the measure, but that it faces tough opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, some conservative Protestant churches, and the California Medical Association.
    ‘‘Physicians look at it as the ultimate abandonment of a patient,’’ said medical association spokesman Ron Lopp. ‘‘That’s not the physician’s role, to aggressively hasten death.’’
    The AP-Ipsos poll showed that religious faith is a significant factor in views on the subject.
    Only 34 percent of those who attend religious services at least once a week think it should be legal for doctors to help terminally ill patients end their own lives. In contrast, 70 percent of those who never attend religious services thought the practice should be legal.
    Just 23 percent of those who attend religious services at least weekly would consider ending their own lives if terminally ill, compared to 49 percent of those who never attend religious services.
    There also was a divide along partisan lines, with 57 percent of Democrats saying it should be legal for doctors to help terminally ill patients end their own lives compared to 39 percent of Republicans. Similarly, 56 percent of Republicans felt Kevorkian should have been jailed, compared to 31 percent of Democrats.
    Men were more likely to say they would consider ending their own lives if faced with a terminal illness — 43 percent of men would consider the option, compared to just 28 percent of women. And 53 percent of men think it should be legal for doctors to help end the lives of terminally ill patients, compared to 44 percent of women.
    Southerners and Midwesterners are most likely to oppose assisted suicide. The poll found that 59 percent of Northeasterners feel the practice should be legal, compared with 52 percent in the West, 45 percent in the Midwest, and 43 percent in the South.
    The AP-Ipsos poll involved telephone interviews with 1,000 randomly chosen adults from May 22-24. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
    ———
    AP Manager of News Surveys Trevor Tompson and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

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