Last month the Pew Research Center conducted an interesting survey on attitudes toward end-of-life medical treatments. It found that 49 percent of Americans oppose physician assisted suicide while 47 percent were in favor. Long term opinion trends on the issue of physician assisted suicide are interesting. Last spring, Gallup surveyed Americans on the moral acceptability of different practices. It found that on a wide range of sexual, social, and lifestyle issues Americans have become more morally permissive during the past 20 years. However, physician assisted suicide and abortion were among the few issues were opposition held firm.
In this particular survey, Pew asked respondents if a person has a moral right to die under 4 separate scenarios. These scenarios ranged from having an incurable disease to being a burden on family. The results were broken down by religious affiliation. For each of the four scenarios, White Catholics were actually more likely than other respondents to believe that people had a moral right to die. Hispanic Catholics, White Evangelicals, and Black Protestants were among the groups least likely to support the idea of a moral right to die. Unfortunately, the survey did not ask about church attendance. Many polls show that Catholics who attend Mass on a weekly basis tend to have more conservative views on social issues. Still, the fact that Catholics are more likely than other demographic groups to believe in a moral right to die is disheartening.
The cultural left has not enjoyed the same progress with physician assisted suicide as they have with other issues. There are a variety of reasons for this. The consistent opposition from groups representing the disabled has given some political liberals pause. Also the lack of support from racial minorities is also an obstacle. Still, physician assisted suicide was recently legalized in Vermont. And a ballot proposition that would have legalized physician assisted suicide in Massachusetts failed by a narrow margin in 2012. The issue is likely gaining salience and some of the key battlegrounds may well be blue states where there is a high Catholic population. As such, clergy and laity who support the sanctity of human life need to more effectively communicate church teachings on this issue.