Live and Let Die: Changing Attitudes

by Andrew Greeley

Andrew M. Greely, is professor of social sciences at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona as well as Research Associate at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

This article appeared in The Christian Century December 4, 1991, pp. 1124-1125. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Herb & June Lowe.


During the past two decades there has been a steady increase in America’s support for the right of persons with incurable diseases to end their own lives. Greeley’s research implies that religious imagery, whether persons see God as a “spouse” rather than “master,” results in the former seeing morality as a personal matter and the latter seeing morality as a matter of moral law. Another reason for the shift in attitudes is an American increase in tolerance for the moral views of other persons. In this 1991 article, Greely does not address the current debate on physician-assisted suicide.

 America's support for "the right to die" increased significantly during the 1980s, according to data in the National Opinion Research Center's annual General Social Survey. Though most Christian denominations oppose the idea, support has grown in all religious segments of society. Even most "fundamentalists" now agree that "doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient's life by some painless means if the patient and his family request it." And it is only among the fundamentalists that a majority does not support the notion that "a person has the right to end his or her own life if the person has an incurable disease."

Surveys measure attitudes, they do not determine moral norms. One does not arrive at ethical values by counting noses. To report these findings is not to endorse them. Moreover, it should be noted that the responses do not necessarily indicate that the respondents would personally follow such courses of action. Nor do the responses guarantee support for specific legislation. They do, however, represent a dramatic social change in a brief period of time.

In the late 1970s three out of five Americans endorsed the right to die and two out of five the right to suicide. By the late 1980s almost three-quarters supported the right to die and almost half the right to suicide. Attitudes toward the right to die vary with age and education, with younger and better-educated respondents more likely to support it. The education factor is negligible, however, given that younger people have higher educational attainments than older people. Age does not account for the change in attitudes either, for the increase in support occurs at all age levels. Moreover, it has occurred in every segment of religious life. Jews and liberal Protestants are most likely to support the right to die and Catholics and fundamentalists least likely. But all groups, including moderate Protestants, show an increase in support both for the right to die and the right to suicide. By the late '80s half the fundamentalists supported the right to die and two out of five the right to suicide, and seven out of ten Catholics supported the right to die and almost half the right to suicide.

Only among Jews and only on the right to suicide is there little change-from 80 percent support at the end of the '70s to 82 percent at the end of the '80s. Perhaps that figure is as high as such support can go. It may also represent where the rest of the population will be at the end of this decade, given the rate of change in the past decade.

These changes do not represent the replacement of older people with more conservative ideas by younger people with more liberal ideas. Responses from 1977 and 1978 and from 1988 to 1990 were pooled to provide enough respondents from the various cohorts at two points in time. During the decade each cohort born since the 1920s has increased its support for the right to die. The change then is not only populationwide but among all major age cohorts.

This change is not the result of an increase in support for abortion during the same period. While there is, as one might expect, a correlation between right-to-die attitudes and abortion attitudes, there has been no statistically significant change in responses to NORC's battery of questions about the legality of abortion. Nor has there been a change in support for suicide in cases that do not involve an incurable disease. When the motive for suicide concerns bankruptcy, dishonor or depression, fewer than one of ten Americans approves.

Among liberal Protestant, moderate Protestant, fundamentalist and Catholic Christians, approval of the right to die increased approximately ten percentage points in the decade. On the right to suicide the approval rate increased ten percentage points for liberals and between 15 and 20 percentage points for the other three groups.

This drastic change has taken place in a decade in which there was no decline in belief in God or belief in life after death or the inspiration of the Bible or in church attendance, and a statistically significant increase in the frequency of prayer.

How can one account for such a shift? Survey data suggest that religious practice and religious dogma are less likely to affect attitudes on the right to die than moralistic styles and fundamentalist orientations. In my research I have been interested in the impact of religious imagery, particularly the difference between regarding God as a "spouse" and regarding God as a "master." The image of God as spouse appears more frequently as support for the right to die increases both among those who picture themselves as "very close to God" and those who do not see themselves that way. The notion that morality is a personal matter does not shape attitudes on the right to die among those who picture God as "spouse." But among those who picture God as "master," those opposed to the idea that morality is a personal matter show diminished support for the right to die. Support for the right to die rises 30 percentage points for those who picture God as a "spouse" and have not tried to convert anyone else to Jesus, as opposed to those who picture God as a "master" and have tried to make converts. Religious imagery therefore makes a big difference.

Might it be that those who picture God as living are less likely to try to impose moral choices by law and to leave moral judgment to heaven rather than the courts? If this speculation has any validity, the dramatic change in attitudes toward the right to die may be part of a more general drift since World War II toward greater tolerance, as evidenced by an increase in respect for the civil liberties of "deviants" of both the "left" and the "right." Changes in attitudes toward the right to die may simply be the result of an increased willingness of Americans to let people do their own thing, even if that is hooking oneself to a suicide machine.

There is some confirmation for this explanation in the NORC data. The General Social Survey asks about attitudes toward the civil liberties of communists, atheists, homosexuals, racists and militarists-about their right to speak in a community, to teach in a college or university, and to have their books available in a public library. Support for the rights of these groups has increased through the 19 years of the survey. In the late'70s 55 percent of Americans would allow books by homosexual authors in public libraries, 62 percent supported gays' right to lecture in the community and 49 percent supported their right to teach in a college. While there has been little change in American attitudes on the morality of homosexuality (a little less than two-thirds think it is always wrong), there has been a shift in attitudes toward the civil liberties of gay people: 63 percent now would allow their books in libraries, 75 percent support their speaking in the community and 63 percent support their teaching in a college.

Thus there are reasons for thinking that the shift in attitudes toward the right to die is to some extent attributable not to a direct change in moral views but to a change in people's tolerance for others' moral views or moral situations. It is tolerable, Americans seem to be saying, that others do their own thing even if their own thing is the termination of life in the context of an incurable disease.