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Trends in public approval of euthanasia and suicide in the US, 1947–2003
  1. O D Duncan1,*,
  2. L F Parmelee2
  1. 1Professor of Sociology (Emeritus), University of California, Santa Barbara, USA
  2. 2Editor, Public Opinion Pros, Storrs, Connecticut, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
 Lisa Ferraro Parmelee
 Editor, Public Opinion Pros, PO Box 844, Storrs, CT 06268, USA; parmelee{at}

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Debates about end of life decisions should accept that public opinion on these matters is still fluid

Changes in the past half century in the attitudes of the American public regarding euthanasia and suicide in the case of incurable disease have been dramatic, and they attest to the success of a social movement that has been in part a phenomenon “of the times” (which is what we say when we do not really understand why attitudes change as they do). But they are also in part a consequence of a highly visible social movement and vigorous deliberate actions intended to shape public opinion, moving it in a direction favourable to concrete changes in law, public policy, and precepts of the profession of medicine.

During much of this period, a bewildering plethora of polls has been conducted, related in one way or another to the question of how the public has viewed the issues about end of life decisions. End of life decisions have an important bioethical component, especially as they raise questions of who makes choices and how those choices can be made in an ethical manner. Does the individual have complete control of his or her own fate? Who can act as surrogate? What role, if any, should physicians play, and what are the interests of the state in such decisions? Anyone who wants to write a justification for, or promote advocacy of, any kind of policy regarding these issues ought to be seriously acquainted with trends in public attitudes. While public opinion cannot be the final arbiter of what is ethically correct, knowledge of it will help us to address the issues in a way that will best benefit the public discourse. Unfortunately, hardly any presentation of the polls related to the subject has attempted to reconcile the …

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  • * Professor Duncan died on the 16th of November 2004.