FactCheck Q&A: do 80% of Australians and up to 70% of Catholics and Anglicans support euthanasia laws?

Author Nikki Gemmell speaking on Q&A. ABC Q&A

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Excerpt from Q&A, April 10, 2017. Quote begins at 5.30.

I’m speaking for 80% of the Australian population here who support the euthanasia laws and in terms of Catholics and Anglicans, I’m speaking for up to 70% of them as well. – Author Nikki Gemmell, speaking on Q&A, April 10, 2017.

The Victorian government is expected to introduce a bill in the second half of this year to legalise euthanasia. If passed, the laws would be the first in Australia to legalise assisted dying since the Northern Territory’s euthanasia laws were overturned in 1997.

During a discussion on Q&A, author Nikki Gemmell – who has been arguing to legalise euthanasia since sharing the story of her mother’s “horrifically lonely” death – said 80% of Australians and up to 70% of Catholics and Anglicans support euthanasia laws.

Is that right?

(Thanks to all the Q&A viewers who requested this FactCheck: see more viewer tweets at the end of this article.)

Checking the source

When asked for sources to support her statement about Australians’ support for euthanasia laws, Gemmell supplied The Conversation with a table listing 10 polls conducted in Australia on the topic of euthanasia between 2007 and 2016.

The table shows support for euthanasia ranging between 66% and 85% over the years from 2007-16.

Opinion poll results, Australia. Table provided by Nikki Gemmell., Author provided

The Conversation has independently verified each of these polls.

As for her statement that up to 70% of Catholics and Anglicans support euthanasia laws, Gemmell pointed The Conversation to a website run by Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Euthanasia.

The website refers to a 2007 Newspoll survey of more than 2,400 people commissioned by Dying with Dignity Victoria, which found 74% of Catholic/Roman Catholic respondents and 81% of Anglican/Church of England respondents surveyed thought doctors should be allowed to provide “a lethal dose to a patient experiencing unrelievable suffering and with no hope of recovery”.

Gemmell also provided a link to a document published by YourLastRight.com, a group of seven not-for-profit pro-euthanasia societies across Australia.

The document refers to a 2012 Newspoll survey of more than 2,500 people, commissioned by YourLastRight.com. That poll asked the question:

Thinking now about voluntary euthanasia. If a hopelessly ill patient, experiencing unrelievable suffering, with absolutely no chance of recovering asks for a lethal dose, should a doctor be allowed to provide a lethal dose, or not?

In that poll, 77% of Catholic/Roman Catholic and 88% of Anglican/Church of England respondents said yes.

A critical look at the polls

The first thing to remember is that not all polls are created equal. Random sample, population-based studies, conducted in a way that maximises the opportunity to participate (such as postal surveys), with well-designed questionnaires, non-leading questions and rigorous data analysis are the “gold standard” for surveys of public opinions and beliefs.

A closer examination of the polls is warranted – so let’s look in more detail at the some of the key surveys Gemmell cites, including from The Australia Institute, ABC Vote Compass, Newspoll and others.

Surveys that ask about people with “unrelievable suffering”

First, let’s look at the Australia Institute and Newspoll results. These surveys asked whether respondents supported voluntary euthanasia for people experiencing “unrelievable suffering”, often in the context of a terminal illness. But it’s important to note that “unrelievable suffering” is only one of the reasons people request assistance to die.

In 2012 the Australia Institute commissioned a survey (1,422 respondents) and reported that 71% supported:

the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia for people experiencing unrelievable and incurable physical and/or mental suffering.

In a 2010 survey (1,294 respondents), the Australia Institute asked:

This question is about voluntary euthanasia. If someone with a terminal illness who is experiencing unrelievable suffering asks to die, should a doctor be allowed to assist them to die?

75% of respondents said “yes, voluntary euthanasia should be legal”. Of the respondents who identified as Christians, 65% said voluntary euthanasia should be legal.

The quality of the Australia Institute research was generally acceptable. To ensure that the survey was representative of the Australian population, sampling quotas were applied by age, gender and territory, and data were post-weighted based on the profile of the adult Australian population.

However, I note some limitations with the 2010 Australia Institute poll:

a) This was an online survey, which would have excluded many older people and potentially people from lower socio-economic backgrounds who may have had limited access to computers, as well as some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In a series of stratified, population-based postal surveys my colleagues and I conducted in Queensland and the Northern Territory between 1995 and 2002, participants were asked about their level of support for “terminally ill people who decide they no longer wish to live”. In those studies, 65%-75% of respondents said euthanasia should be legally available, but those aged 75 and over were the least likely to agree with this.

There was also concern among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Northern Territory about the introduction in 1995 of laws legalising euthanasia (overturned in 1997). Had there been more participation among older people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australia Institute poll, the results may have shown less acceptance of voluntary euthanasia.

(b) The question itself was problematic. As mentioned earlier, “unrelievable suffering” is not the only reason people request assistance to die. The main reasons for requests for assistance to die include loss of control, dignity and independence; and having “had enough” or being “ready to go” – not just “unrelievable suffering”.

If someone is experiencing unrelievable suffering, there should be a thorough investigation of their pain and symptom management, and other causes of distress, with the option of terminal sedation for unmanageable suffering.

Then there are Newspoll’s findings from 2007, 2009 and 2012, from surveys commissioned by Dying With Dignity Victoria, Dying with Dignity NSW and YourLastRight.com respectively.

In those surveys, 80-85% of respondents answered yes to the question:

Thinking now about voluntary euthanasia. If a hopelessly ill patient, experiencing unrelievable suffering, with absolutely no chance of recovering asks for a lethal dose, should a doctor be allowed to provide a lethal dose, or not?

Again, that is very leading question, which limits its credibility.

Surveys with less leading questions

Since 2013, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has run national and statewide surveys using an online tool called Vote Compass, developed by data scientists from Canada in collaboration with political scientists from the University of Melbourne. It allows voters to respond to political and social issues on an opt-in basis.

The 2016 Vote Compass survey (201,404 respondents) found 75% of respondents strongly agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement:

Terminally ill patients should be able to legally end their own lives with medical assistance.

ABC Vote Compass 2016

The same result – 75% agreement – was reported when the question was asked in the 2013 Vote Compass survey (effective sample size of 422,403).

In the 2013 and 2016 Vote Compass polls, 70%/71% of Catholics and 66%/68% of Protestants, respectively, strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement, as well as 77% from the Uniting Church in 2013.

As ABC Vote Compass itself readily acknowledges, Vote Compass is not a random sample, and it is not a poll. The sample is self-selected, although results are weighted to be representative of the Australian population.

The statement ABC Vote Compass asked people to respond to on this issue – “terminally ill people should be able to end their lives with medical assistance” – was much better than the one asked by the Australia Institute. It’s a less leading question, and doesn’t depend on unrelievable suffering.

Support falls if euthanasia is not being requested for terminal illness

It’s also worth noting that some polls, such as the 2015 Ipsos Mori/Economist poll Gemmell cited, show support for voluntary euthanasia drops to as low as 36% if the patient’s condition is not terminal and the patient is “mentally or emotionally suffering”, rather than “physically suffering”.

More than 2,000 adults surveyed in Australia in 2015 were asked:

Do you think it should be legal or not for a doctor to assist a patient aged 18 or over in ending their life, if that is the patient’s wish, provided that the patient is terminally ill (where it is believed that they have 6 months or less to live) of sound mind, and expresses a clear desire to end their life?

73% of respondents said yes, it should be legal. They were also asked:

Do you think it should be legal or not for a doctor to assist a patient aged 18 or over in ending their life, by the doctor administering life-ending medication?

The “yes” response dropped to 64% for this question (which didn’t specify the patient’s health status). Support dropped again when people were asked:

Do you think that it should be legal or not for a doctor to assist a patient in ending their life, if they are not terminally ill, but are physically suffering in a way that they find unbearable and which cannot be cured or improved with existing medical science?

In these circumstances, 58% said “yes, it should be legal”. When the words “physically suffering” were swapped with “mentally or emotionally suffering”, support dropped to 36%.

Some polls show Catholics and Christians are against euthanasia

Not all polls or surveys on this issue are represented in the table that Gemmell provided. One example is the National Church Life Survey, conducted every five years for 25 years, which surveys churchgoers and local church leaders from more than 20 Christian denominations. It is run by NCLS Research, and is supported by the Uniting Mission and Education, the Anglicare Diocese of Sydney, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and the Australian Catholic University.

In 2011 a sample of Catholic, Anglican and Protestant churchgoers were asked:

Do you agree or disagree: ‘People suffering from a terminal illness should be able to ask a doctor to end their life?’

Only 24% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed; 26% were neutral or unsure, and 50% disagreed or strongly disagreed. Results broken down by denomination are as follows:

Responses to the statement “the terminally ill should be able to ask a doctor to end their life”.

NCLS Research.

The question asked in this survey is a good one, and it isn’t leading. However, there is insufficient information in the report about how the data was collected to judge its validity.

For example, even if the results were supposed to be anonymous, information about respondents’ gender and age was collected. The surveys were collected and returned to NCLS Research by the individual churches, and church leaders were provided with the survey results relating to their parishioners. It’s possible respondents moderated their answers under those circumstances, which does cast doubt on the credibility of the survey.

Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to say that while higher percentages of people in the wider community who identify with specific religions express support for assisted dying, there appears to be much lower support among regular churchgoers.

Verdict

Nikki Gemmell’s statement that 80% of Australians and up to 70% of Catholics and Anglicans support euthanasia laws is backed up by a number of surveys – but not all. Public support can drop significantly depending on the questions asked, how the survey was conducted and who conducted it.

Support for voluntary euthanasia is generally higher when the question asks about patients with “unrelievable suffering” who have “absolutely no chance of recovering”. Support falls when patients do not have a terminal illness.

Academic research conducted between 1995 and 2002 found that a majority of Australians supported legislation allowing voluntary euthanasia. There has been surprisingly little academic research on this question since then. – Colleen Cartwright

Review

The article is balanced and generally presents an accurate summary of the spread of opinion on assisted death.

The author’s comments on leading questions and on questions that specify “unrelievable suffering” are well supported by the literature.

It’s worth adding that “assistance” might be thought by some respondents to include stopping treatment, something that is already legal. Five of the 10 surveys in the table Nikki Gemmell provided did not specify either “suicide” or a “lethal injection”. Of course, the other five surveys showed similarly high levels of support for assisted dying.

A related issue is that support might be lower if a model of assisted death is specified. The Ipsos study reported 73% approval for unspecified assistance, 64% support for a doctor “administering life-ending medication” and 55% support for a doctor “prescribing life-ending medication that the patient could take”. – Charles Douglas


Thank you to everyone who requested this FactCheck by tweeting with the hashtags #FactCheck #QandA.


Update: This FactCheck was updated on May 9, 2017 to add more detail about how the National Church Life Survey was conducted.


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