Most religious followers support assisted suicide for the dying

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 02 May 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f2855
  1. Zosia Kmietowicz
  1. 1BMJ

A large survey in the United Kingdom has found that a majority of those people who said that they followed a religion—64%—think that there should be a change in the law to allow assisted suicide for people who are terminally ill. Only among Baptists and Muslims was there a majority against such a change.

The survey of nearly 4500 adults, 3000 of whom were religious, found that the greatest support for a legislative change was among those who did not have a religion—of 1630 people who said that they did not follow a religion, 81% supported assisted suicide.

But there was also strong support for a change in the law among Anglicans (72% of 1519 responders in a weighted sample), Jews (69% of 82), Methodists (62% of 121), Presbyterians (61% of 108), and Catholics (56% of 391). Among the 48 Hindus who took part, 36% supported a change in the law, 28% opposed a change, and 35% were undecided.

The poll was carried out by YouGov for the Westminster faith debates, which have been researching the role of religion in public and private life. They have looked at stem cell research, abortion, gay marriage, and most recently death.

When people were asked why they supported a change in the law, 82% said that individuals had a right to choose when and how to die, and 76% agreed that it was preferable to a period of long suffering.

Among those who backed the current law, 59% were concerned that vulnerable people would feel pressured to die, and 48% were concerned that safeguards would be difficult to build into the law.

Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University and organiser of the survey, said that there had been shift in attitudes in the United Kingdom around suffering and wellbeing. She told the BMJ: “It is very striking that most people now in this country do not think that life is sacred at all costs. They do not think that suffering is of value; it is quality of life that is important.”

However, she said that legislating to allow family members or relatives to help someone end their life presented concerns for many people.

Woodhead dismissed criticism of the survey by the Church of England. In the Guardian newspaper on 1 May, a spokesman for the church said that the findings showed that complex discussions on topics such as assisted suicide “cannot be effectively conducted through the medium of online surveys.”1

Woodhead said: “The Anglican church just shot the messenger. It is a reliable finding. It is just not what they want to hear. The message is that there is a disconnect between their teachings and what their people think.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f2855