Select Committee on Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill Written Evidence

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.


  1.1  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 policy—including extensive research among members of the public.


  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 out randomly.

  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.


  3.1  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 circumstances—for 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, 5.1).

  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 groups.

    —  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.


  4.1  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. Email:


  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 needs—for 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 3.3)

  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 die—for 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.

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2005