Objective: To investigate the attitudes of terminally ill individuals toward the legalization of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and to identify those who would personally desire such a death.
Design: In the Canadian National Palliative Care Survey, semistructured interviews were administered to 379 patients who were receiving palliative care for cancer. Patients who expressed a desire for physician-hastened death were followed prospectively.
Main outcome measures: Attitudes toward the legalization of euthanasia or PAS were determined, as was the personal interest in receiving a hastened death. Demographic and clinical characteristics were also recorded, including a 22-item structured interview of symptoms and concerns.
Results: There were 238 participants (62.8%) who believed that euthanasia and/or PAS should be legalized, and 151 (39.8%) who would consider making a future request for a physician-hastened death. However, only 22 (5.8%) reported that, if legally permissible, they would initiate such a request right away, in their current situations. This desire for hastened death was associated with lower religiosity (p=.010), reduced functional status (p=.024), a diagnosis of major depression (p<.001), and greater distress on 12 of 22 individual symptoms and concerns (p<.025). In follow-up interviews with 17 participants, 2 (11.8%) showed instability in their expressed desire.
Conclusion: Among patients receiving palliative care for cancer, the desire to receive euthanasia or PAS is associated with religious beliefs; functional status; and physical, social, and psychological symptoms and concerns. Although this desire is sometimes transitory, once firmly established, it can be enduring.
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