Memorandum by the National Centre for
Social Research (NatCen)
This evidence is presented by the National Centre
for Social Research (NatCen) and is based upon findings from its
British Social Attitudes survey.
1. THE NATIONAL
1.1 NatCen is the largest independent social
research institute in Britain. It designs, carries out and analyses
research studies in the fields of social and public policyincluding
extensive research among members of the public.
2. THE BRITISH
2.1 The British Social Attitudes survey
(BSA) is NatCen's longest running survey. It was set up in 1983
to measure the changing attitudes, values and beliefs of the British
public. Over the years it has covered an extensive number of complex
social, political and moral issues.
2.2 The sample is designed to yield a representative
sample of adults aged 18 and over. It is drawn from the Postcode
Address File, a list of addresses compiled by the Post Office.
The selection of an adult to interview at each address is carried
2.3 The survey is independent of political
pressure, an important reason for its success and longevity. It
obtains funding from a variety of sources. Core funding is provided
by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, one of the Sainsbury Family
Charitable Trusts. A condition of this funding is that all aspects
of question design and data analysis are controlled by the survey
series' researchers, rather than by the survey's funders. Other
funding is obtained from government and grant-giving bodies such
as the Economic and Social Research Council.
2.4 The 1995 BSA survey included a set of
questions about euthanasia, funded by the Nuffield Foundation.
These questions were asked of just under 1,200 respondents, Earlier
rounds of the survey had also included some questions about this
topic, allowing an assessment of the extent to which attitudes
have changed over time. We are currently applying for funds to
repeat the 1995 survey, in order to assess whether attitudes have
changed over the last decade.
2.5 The remainder of this document describes
the key findings of the research to date.
3. PUBLIC ATTITUDES
3.1 Between 1984 and 1994, the BSA survey
found opinion on euthanasia to have shifted in a more "liberal"
direction. In both years, respondents were asked "suppose
a person has a painful incurable disease. Do you think that doctors
should be allowed by law to end the patient's life, if the patient
requests it?". In 1984, 75 per cent thought that the law
should allow this (24 per cent disagreed), rising to 82 per cent
in 1994 (15 per cent disagreed).
3.2 The 1995 survey considered euthanasia
in more detail than had previously been possible. It centred upon
the acceptability or otherwise of doctors being allowed by law
to end a patient's life, reflecting the focus of the debate at
that time. It found considerable public support for assisted dying
in certain limited circumstancesfor example, the case of
a person in an irreversible coma on a life-support machine (with
their relatives' consent). Nearly nine in 10 (86 per cent) of
people thought that euthanasia should "definitely" or
"probably" be allowed in these circumstances. (The exact
question wording can be found in the appendix to this document,
3.3 However, opinion was more divided over
cases where the patient was conscious, where the illness was painful
but not life-threatening, or where they were simply tired of living.
For example, just over half (51 per cent) of people thought euthanasia
should be allowed in the case of a person who is completely dependent
upon relatives for all their needs but who is not in much pain
nor in danger of death. Only 12 per cent felt euthanasia to be
acceptable for someone who is "simply tired of living".
(The exact question wording can be found in the appendix to this
document, 5.2 and 5.3).
3.4 There were marked variations in support
for euthanasia between different social groups. The characteristics
most strongly associated with a person's views were:
Religion: the non-religious
and those who did not attend religious services regularly were
notably more pro-euthanasia than their more religious counterparts.
Ethnicity: white respondents
were more pro-euthanasia than respondents from minority ethnic
Geography: respondents in
England and Wales were more pro-euthanasia than those in Scotland.
Disability: respondents with
a disability were more pro-euthanasia than the able-bodied.
Educational attainment: respondents
with qualifications were more pro-euthanasia than those with no
qualifications at all.
3.5 Once these factors were taken into account,
there were no significant differences between different age groups,
and between men and women. Although opposition to euthanasia is
highest among older groups, this largely reflects the fact that
a higher than average proportion of this age group are religious
(rather than their age per se).
3.6 We also found a clear association between
a person's views about euthanasia and their beliefs about a range
of "sanctity of life" issues. Being "anti-suicide"
or "anti-capital punishment" is strongly associated
with being anti-euthanasia.
3.7 The strong relationship between attitudes
to euthanasia and religion suggests that euthanasia will become
increasingly acceptable as older, more religious, generations
gradually die out and are replaced by less religious generations.
4. CONTACT DETAILS
4.1 This submission was prepared by Alison
Park, British Social Attitudes, National Centre for Social Research,
35 Northampton Square, London EC1V 0AX. Telephone: 020 7549 9573.
THE 1995 SURVEY
5.1 "Now think about what should happen
to someone who has an incurable illness which leaves them unable
to make a decision about their own future. For instance, imagine
a person in a coma on a life support machine who is never expected
to regain consciousness. If their relatives agreed, do you think
a doctor should ever be allowed by law to turn the machine off,
or not?" (See para. 3.2)
5.2 "And now, how about a person who
is not in much pain nor in danger of death, but becomes permanently
and completely dependent on relatives for all their needsfor
example, someone who cannot feed, wash or go to the toilet by
themselves. Do you think that, if they ask for it, a doctor should
ever be allowed by law to end their life, or not?" (See para
5.3 "Now think of a person who is not
ill or close to death but who is simply tired of living and wishes
to diefor example someone who is extremely lonely and no
longer enjoys life. Do you think that, if they ask for it, a doctor
should ever be allowed by law to end their life, or not?"
(See para 3.3).
5.4 In all cases, respondents could choose
between the following options:
Definitely should be allowed.
Probably should be allowed.
Probably should not be allowed.
Definitely should not be allowed.