Last week, Gallup released the results of a poll on the moral acceptability of various behaviors. Specifically, this poll asked people about the morality of over fifteen specific issues including abortion, gambling, and polygamy. What was most interesting was the sharp increase in the percentage of people who found doctor assisted suicide “morally acceptable.” In 2013, only 45 percent of Americans found doctor assisted suicide “morally acceptable.” Last week’s poll indicated that percentage had risen to 56 percent.
Usually, public opinion on controversial morality policy issues exhibits relatively little short term change. Under most circumstances, I would argue that a change of that magnitude was probably due to a skewed sample in at least one of the two surveys. However, according to Gallup, opinions on the moral acceptability of all other issues remained fairly stable between 2013 and 2015. As such, there is a good chance that doctor assisted suicide has made some real gains in the court of public opinion. It is likely that the November 2014 assisted suicide of Brittany Maynard and the fawning coverage it received from the mainstream media might well have shifted public attitudes.
Interestingly, after a successful citizen initiative in Oregon in 1994, advocates of physician assisted suicide have made relatively little progress either politically or in the court of public opinion. In fact, between 2001 and 2013 the percentage of Americans who considered physician assisted suicide morally acceptable actually decreased by four percentage points. There are a couple reasons for this. For many years, Jack Kevorkian was the public face of physician assisted suicide and his antics likely alienated many Americans. Also, many groups representing the disabled vocally oppose physician assisted suicide. This has likely given some political liberals pause.
That said, supporters of physician assisted suicide have become more aggressive in recent years. In 2008, a citizen initiative legalizing physician assisted suicide passed in Washington state by a fifty-seven to forty-three margin. In 2013, Vermont Governor Peter Sumlin signed legislation that allowed for physician assisted suicide. Recently, there have been legislative hearings on the issue in both New Jersey and Connecticut and the California Senate Appropriations Committee approved a physician assisted suicide bill last week. Social conservatives, as always, would do well to be diligent.
Michael J. New is an Assistant Professor at The University of Michigan–Dearborn and an Associate Scholar with the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New