Attitudes and desires related to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide among terminally ill patients and their caregivers

Ezekiel J. Emanuel*, Diane L. Fairclough, Linda L. Emanuel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

302 Scopus citations


Context. Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (PAS) are highly controversial issues. While there are studies of seriously ill patients' interest in euthanasia and PAS, there are no data on the attitudes and desires of terminally ill patients regarding these issues. Objective: To determine the attitudes of terminally ill patients toward euthanasia and PAS, whether they seriously were considering euthanasia and PAS for themselves, the stability of their desires, factors associated with their desires, and the proportion of patients who die from these interventions. Design: Prospective cohort of terminally ill-patients and their primary caregivers surveyed twice between March 1996 and July 1997. Setting: Outpatient settings in 5 randomly selected metropolitan statistical areas and 1 rural county. Participants: A total of 988 patients identified by their physicians to be terminally ill with any disease except for human immunodeficiency virus infection (response rate, 87.4%) and 893 patient-designated primary caregivers (response rate, 97.6%). Main Outcome Measures: Support for euthanasia or PAS in standard scenarios; patient-expressed considerations and discussions of their desire for euthanasia or PAS; hoarding of drugs for suicide; patient death by euthanasia or PAS; and patient-reported sociodemographic factors and symptoms related to these outcomes. Results: Of the 988 terminally ill patients, a total of 60.2% supported euthanasia or PAS in a hypothetical situation, but only 10.6% reported seriously considering euthanasia or PAS for themselves. Factors associated with being less likely to consider euthanasia or PAS were feeling appreciated (odds ratio [OR], 0.65; 95% confidence interval [Cl], 0.52-0.82), being aged 65 years or older (OR, 0.52; 95% Cl, 0.34-0.82), and being African American (OR, 0.39; 95% Cl, 0.18-0.84). Factors associated with being more likely to consider euthanasia or PAS were depressive symptoms (OR, 1.25; 95% Cl, 1.05-1.49), substantial caregiving needs (OR, 1.09; 95% Cl, 1.01-1.17), and pain (OR, 1.26; 95% Cl, 1.02-1.56). At the follow-up interview, half of the terminally ill patients who had considered euthanasia or PAS for themselves changed their minds, while an almost equal number began considering these interventions. Patients with depressive symptoms (OR, 5.29; 95% Cl, 1.21-23.2) and dyspnea (OR, 1.68; 95% Cl, 1.26-2.22) were more likely to change their minds to consider euthanasia or PAS. According to the care-givers of the 256 decedents, 14 patients (5.6%) had discussed asking the physician for euthanasia or PAS and 6 (2.5%) had hoarded drugs. Ultimately, of the 256 decedents, 1 (0.4%) died by euthanasia or PAS, 1 unsuccessfully attempted suicide, and 1 repeatedly requested for her life to be ended but the family and physicians refused. Conclusions: In this survey, a small proportion of terminally ill patients seriously considered euthanasia or PAS for themselves. Over a few months, half the patients changed their minds. Patients with depressive symptoms were more likely to change their minds about desiring euthanasia or PAS.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2460-2468
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of the American Medical Association
Issue number19
StatePublished - Nov 15 2000

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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