Background: There has been a continuing public debate about assisted suicide and the proper role, if any, of physicians in this practice. Legislative bans and various forms of legalization have been proposed.
Methods: We mailed questionnaires to three stratified random samples of Michigan physicians in specialties likely to involve the care of terminally ill patients: 500 in the spring of 1994, 500 in the summer of 1994, and 600 in the spring of 1995. Similar questionnaires were mailed to stratified random samples of Michigan adults: 449 in the spring of 1994 and 899 in the summer of 1994. Several different questionnaire forms were used, all of which included questions about whether physician-assisted suicide should be banned in Michigan or legalized under certain conditions.
Results: Usable questionnaires were returned by 1119 of 1518 physicians eligible for the study (74 percent), and 998 of 1307 eligible adults in the sample of the general public (76 percent). Asked to choose between legalization of physician-assisted suicide and an explicit ban, 56 percent of physicians and 66 percent of the public support legalization, 37 percent of physicians and 26 percent of the public preferred a ban, and 8 percent of each group were uncertain. When the physicians were given a wider range of choices, 40 percent preferred legalization, 37 percent preferred "no law" (i.e., no government regulation), 17 percent favored prohibition, and 5 percent were uncertain. If physician-assisted suicide were legal, 35 percent of physicians said they might participate if requested--22 percent would participate in either assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia, and 13 percent would participate only in assisted suicide. Support for physician-assisted suicide was lowest among the strongly religious.
Conclusions: Most Michigan physicians prefer either the legalization of physician-assisted suicide or no law at all; fewer than one fifth prefer a complete ban on the practice. Given a choice between legalization and a ban, two thirds of the Michigan public prefer legalization and one quarter prefer a ban.