Background: We wanted to examine how the acceptance of euthanasia among the general public in Western Europe has changed in the last decades, and we wanted to look for possible explanations.
Methods: We analysed data from the European Values Surveys, held in 1981, 1990, and 1999-2000 in 12 West European countries. In each country, representative samples of the general public were interviewed using the same structured questionnaire in all countries. Euthanasia was explained in the questionnaires as 'terminating the life of the incurably sick'.
Results: A total of 46 199 respondents participated in the surveys. A significant increase in acceptance of euthanasia could be observed in all countries except (West) Germany. While the average increase in euthanasia acceptance was 22%, the increase was particularly obvious in Belgium, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. Although changes in several characteristics of respondents, such as decrease in religious beliefs, rising belief in the right to self-determination, and (to a lesser extent) rise in levels of education, were associated with growing acceptance of euthanasia, they could only partly explain the increase of euthanasia acceptance over the years.
Conclusions: An increase of euthanasia acceptance among the general public took place over the last two decades in almost all West European countries, possibly indicating a growing support for personal autonomy regarding medical end-of-life decisions. If this trend continues, it is likely to increase the public and political debate about the (legal) regulation of euthanasia under certain conditions of careful medical practice in several West European countries.