While euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide increasingly are being legalized around the world, there appears to be little evidence that vulnerable patients are being targeted by abuse of the practice, researchers say.
A review published in the July 5 edition of JAMA examined surveys and death certification studies from countries and jurisdictions where physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia or both have been legalized, to explore attitudes and practices.
Currently, physician-assisted suicide is legal in five U.S. states – California, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington – while euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide is legal in Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, (JAMA 2016;316:79-90. doi: 10.1001/jama.2016.8499).
The review found evidence suggesting that in the United States, physician-assisted suicide accounts for less than 0.4% of all deaths. In Belgium and the Netherlands, that prevalence is much higher; the most recent studies suggested that 4.6% of all deaths in Belgium and 2.9% of all deaths in the Netherlands can be attributed to euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, and there is the suggestion that this proportion is increasing over time.
The authors also addressed the so-called “slippery slope” argument, which posits that legalization of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide would see its expansion to include patients who had not explicitly requested it. They noted that the incidence of deaths resulting from administration of lethal drugs without explicit patient consent appeared to have declined from 0.8% of deaths in the Netherlands in 1990 to 0.2% of deaths in 2010.
Similarly in Belgium, these deaths without explicit patient consent were estimated to be around 3.2% of deaths before legalization and 1.7% of deaths in 2013, after legalization.
“There is much debate concerning performing euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, or other life-ending procedures on patients with dementia or chronic mental illness, who are minors, who are just “tired of life,” or who are socioeconomically vulnerable,” wrote Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives and professor and chair of the department of medical ethics and health policy medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and coauthors.
However they cited a survey of Dutch physicians which found that only 2% of requests for euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide were from patients with a psychiatric disease, 4% were from patients with dementia, and 3% were from patients with neither a serious physical or psychiatric disease.
“In the United States, the concern that minorities, the disabled, the poor, or other socioeconomically marginalized groups might be pressured to accept [physician-assisted suicide] does not seem to be borne out,” the authors wrote. “The demographic profile of patients in the United States who have received these interventions is white, well-educated, and well-insured.”
The majority of cases of physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia in the Netherlands and Belgium – 70% – occur in patients with cancer, and 6% are among individuals with a neurodegenerative disease.
The authors also examined changing attitudes among the general public and among physicians towards physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. They found that public support has declined slightly in the United States, from 75% in 2005 to 64% in 2012, but pointed out that assessing attitudes was challenging because of “framing effects” in surveys.
“Support varies substantially depending on the wording of survey questions; the provision of details about the patients, their prognosis, their medical diagnosis, and symptoms; how the interventions are characterized; and whether the questions are focused on ethical acceptability, legalization, or some other endorsement.”
Support for euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide has increased in most Western European nations but has either plateaued or decreased in much of Central and Eastern Europe.
“These changes seem correlated with a strong decline in religiosity in Western Europe and an increase in religiosity in post-communist Eastern Europe,” the authors suggested.
Physician surveys experience the same framing issues, but the authors cited a 2014 Medscape survey of physicians in seven countries which found that 54% of U.S. respondents agreed that physician-assisted suicide should be allowed, compared with 47% of respondents in Germany and the U.K., 42% in Italy, 30% in France, and 36% in Spain.
No conflicts of interest were reported.