Investigations on the relationships between science and society see some of their most fruitful and significant spheres in the themes of health and medicine. The concepts and the problems linked to health issues inscribe within themselves practices, competences and choices that refer to science – in fact, as it has emerged, Italians judge medicine a purely scientific field, even more than physics. But at the same time, such concepts are also linked to moral and ethical principles, to patients’ and doctors’ rights and duties, to a Country’s judicial framework and to individual freedom of choice. The recent controversies that lately have emerged on in-vitro fertilisation, on the utilisation of staminal cells, on the medical treatment of terminally ill patients derive from the very necessity to re-think and re-define the ethical and legislative positions on such issues, also allowing for all the technical and scientific innovations that are nowadays advancing this field at a very fast pace.
One of the themes on treatment choices that lately have been the focus of the media and public attention, both in Italy and in the international context, consists of euthanasia. The appeals for interrupting medical treatments on the part of conscious patients, terminally ill and with no hope of recovery, have led Italians to increasingly question the possible courses of action that can be taken in those instances. In recent years, the opinions on these issues have changed substantially, as it is revealed by the Science and Society Monitor – Observa.
The opinions that agree on the possibility to interrupt medical treatments, if asked for by a terminally ill patient, have increased from 30% to 42% from 2005 to the present; only a few years ago, instead, the relative majority of the interviewees (40%) agreed on the necessity to keep all patients alive with all possible means. Recently also the percentage of the undecided has doubled its figures, tendency that can be interpreted in terms of an increase in the general uncertainty that accompanies so delicate a theme, brought to the public attention thorough concrete events rather than through abstract considerations.
As previous research on biological testament had registered, also regarding euthanasia the differences between Catholics and non-believers appear small. Amongst the former, those in favour of the interruption of the treatments constitute 41%, and amongst the latter 46%. Nonetheless differences emerge, especially with respect to the other two options offered to the interviewees: almost one third amongst Catholics favours the prolonging of life at any cost (13% amongst non religious interviewees), while 33% of non-believers allows for the possibility to accelerate death with pharmaceutical products (14% of Catholics). As to the differences deriving from age and education level, youngsters and people with a higher level of education tend to favour euthanasia more than, respectively, elderly people and those with lower levels of education.
The complete set of data on the survey is available in Arzenton V. and Bucchi M. (2008), Italians and Science. First report on science, technology and public opinion in Italy, in Observa Science in Society, Annuario Scienza e Società 2008 (Science and Society Facts and Figures 2008), Ergon Edizioni.
The Science and Society Monitor is the first permanent research tool, established in 2003, that monitors the tendencies and trends in the Italian public opinion about research and technological innovation. Promoted by Observa – Science in Society with the support of Compagnia di San Paolo, the Monitor was created as an instrument that offers policy-maker, the media, research institutions and citizens a solid cognitive base, comparable at the international level and continuously updated, in order to foster an informed and constructive debate on the issues stemming from the relationship between science and society. It is conducted through CATI-method interviews on a sample of 1000 cases, representative of the Italian population over 15 years of age, under the scientific supervision of Massimiano Bucchi (University of Trento), Federico Neresini and Giuseppe Pellegrini (University of Padova) and under the management of Valeria Arzenton (Observa – Science in Society).
The survey was conducted by means of CATI-method telephone interviews with a sample of 996 subjects, stratified by gender, age, and geographical area of residence, and representing the Italian population aged 15 and over.
(Translation by Sara Pascoli)