Why do pollsters in Vermont keep on asking dishonest questions about assisted suicide?
We received a call today from a reporter wanting to know our opinion on the new Castleton Polling Institute poll that purports to show Vermonters strongly support legalizing assisted suicide.
We gave him our standard answers:
- Polls are meaningless unless people are given time and the necessary information to make an informed judgment on an issue. Our example: in late August of 2012, people polled in Massachusetts told the Public Policy Polling Institute by a margin of 58%-25% that they supported a ballot initiative that would have legalized assisted suicide there (http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2012/09/romney-trails-by-18-in-massachusetts.html#more). About ten weeks later, Massachusetts voters defeated the legalization measure. The difference was education.
- Polls are almost always biased. In the spring of 2012, one of our board members got a call from a respected polling organization, asking questions that appeared to be about palliative care that sometimes unintentionally hastens death. The questions used emotionally loaded language like “medication to peacefully hasten death” and also asked whether respondents wanted “the church” to tell them what to do at the end of life. We had been tipped off by a physician friend who got the poll call first, or we ourselves might have answered the questions in a way that proponents would have interpreted as supporting assisted suicide.
The reporter agreed with us that that poll, commissioned by assisted suicide proponents and repeated by them this winter in the Northeast Kingdom, with predictable results, was skewed towards assisted suicide; but he told us that he did not think the Castleton poll was.
Tonight, we have looked at that Castleton poll question at http://www.castleton.edu/polling/feb20_2013/endoflife.htm. We vehemently disagree with the reporter’s assertion that it is not skewed. Here it is: “Would you favor or oppose legislation allowing someone who is terminally ill to take prescribed medicine to end his or her life?”
Almost all Vermonters, even opponents of assisted suicide, would answer “yes” to the question of whether a terminally ill patient can take prescription medication to end his or her life. In fact no legislation is needed to “allow” a person to commit suicide. Our high suicide rate is proof that suicide is not hard, and prescription or non prescription medications are often the chosen means. In Oregon, poisoning is the chief cause of unassisted suicide among women (http://public.health.oregon.gov/DiseasesConditions/InjuryFatalityData/Documents/NVDRS/Suicide%20in%20Oregon%202012%20report.pdf, p. 11).
Dr. Ira Byock, Director of Palliative Medicine at Dartmouth Hitchcock, told the Health and Welfare Committee hearings on assisted suicide that a patient receiving palliative medications has the means at hand to commit suicide, his prescription medications. He also said that, while he does not volunteer information about the dosage that would kill thme, he does answer patients’ questions about it honestly (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMBNeh7k4EU, beginning at the 20 minute mark).
Because there is no need and because “allowing” implies sanctioning, True Dignity would actually not support a law allowing a person to take prescribed medication to commit suicide, but we are pretty sure a person not well educated about suicide would not think about the difference between accepting and allowing in the few seconds he had to formulate an answer to a poll question.
Allowing a patient to take his own life using prescription medication is very different from allowing a physician to prescribe drugs in the specific amounts that will cause death and to give instructions on how to use them to bring about the death. It would be an absurdity to suggest that we prosecute a patient for using prescription medications to commit suicide and a cruelty to prosecute rather than help a person who had attempted suicide but failed. True Dignity believes, however, that a physician who deliberately aids a suicide should indeed face the threat of prosecution.
If the Castleton poll had asked Vermonters an honest question, the results might have been very different. We suggest putting it this way: “Would you support legislation that would allow a physician to prescribe a lethal overdose of drugs to a patient he judges to be terminally ill and give him instructions on how to use them to commit suicide?”
Back to the August 2012 Massachusetts poll: It was much more honest than the Castleton Institute poll, asking whether people would favor a law allowing a physician “to prescribe medication, at the request of a terminally ill patient meeting certain conditions, to end that person’s life”. People still answered yes; yet after learning more about what assisted suicide actually entails, and about the threats it presents to real choice at the end of life, particularly the threat of elder abuse, they voted no on legalization. The main point we made to the reporter this afternoon, therefore, still stands: when people come to know what legal assisted suicide really is, they do not want it.
Still, we would like to know why pollsters in Vermont keep on asking dishonest questions about assisted suicide.