As 1991 began, the Gallup organization released a poll...

Coping/Mortal Matters

December 30, 1991|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,Universal Press Syndicate

As 1991 began, the Gallup organization released a poll indicating that vast numbers of Americans "don't worry about death, or fear it, or even think about it." In fact, the poll found that in some cases Americans even welcome death.

Americans are optimistic people. Current economic woes have dampened spirits and created hardships in many households but, on the whole, Americans have enjoyed peace and plenty. Even the event that threatened to bring death much too close for comfort -- the Persian Gulf war -- turned out to be swift and almost miraculously casualty-free for American troops.

As 1991 draws to a close, it's worth looking back on the attitudes captured in that snapshot of American opinion. After all, the year brought not just a war, but also its share of other death-related public policy issues.

A year ago, according to the poll, only 16 percent of Americans said they think about death "very often" or "somewhat often." But the vast majority said they almost never think about it.

Older people were found to be no more likely to think about death than younger ones. Religion didn't seem to make much difference either. Those who described themselves as "not very" religious didn't think about death any more or less than those who considered themselves "very" religious.

The Gallup organization suggests that part of this calmness in the face of mortality may spring from a widespread belief in life after death. Since 1944, Gallup Polls have found that roughly two-thirds of Americans express a belief in an afterlife -- and most of them assume they'll end up in heaven, not hell.

One result of the poll was especially encouraging for a country with a growing number of elderly citizens. Most older people -- 63 percent -- said that getting older doesn't bother them at all. Maybe that acceptance of the aging process helps explain why older people are no more worried about death than younger people.

Fortunately, though, more older people prepare for death. Far more of them said they had drawn up wills or made other preparations by purchasing a burial plot, pre-paying funeral expenses or setting out plans for their funeral or memorial services.

The poll also found that two-thirds of Americans said that people have the "moral right" to end their lives if they are suffering great pain and have no hope for improvement.

Three out of four agreed that a terminally ill patient has the absolute right to request that treatment be withheld in order to hasten death -- if the doctor agrees, if the family agrees or if the patient is in great pain.

A clear majority (58 percent) said that a terminally ill patient has the right to end his or her life "under any circumstances."

These statistics seem to indicate relatively strong feelings on the subject. Yet when actually faced with a chance to legalize a physician's active participation in bringing on death, the widespread public support that fueled a "death-with-dignity" initiative in Washington state fell short.

Did Americans change their minds after Gallup surveyed public opinion last year? Not necessarily. More likely, the Washington state vote indicates that Americans don't want to rush into public policies that stir up strong and conflicting emotions.

That's just as well. Despite Americans' relatively carefree attitudes toward death, a ground-breaking law like physician-assisted suicide deserves a long and thoughtful national debate. Otherwise, like abortion, it could easily produce a never-ending stand-off.

Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.

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