By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS (Reuters) - Large majorities of west Europeans favor the legalization of assisted suicide, now allowed only in four countries on the continent, according to a new survey.
In almost all the 12 countries polled, three-quarters or more of those responding to questions posed by the Swiss Medical Lawyers Association (SMLA) said people should be able to decide when and how they die.
Two-thirds to three-quarters of them said they could imagine opting for assisted suicide themselves if they suffered from an incurable illness, serious disability or uncontrollable pain.
"In practically all European countries, many signs indicate that the prevailing legal system no longer reflects the will of large parts of the population on this issue," the SMLA said.
The results of its poll "should allow politicians to take democratic principles into account when considering legislation on these issues," it added in its introduction to the study.
Assisted suicide is now allowed only in Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Switzerland. The German government has proposed legalizing it as long as no profit is involved while France is debating whether to allow it.
GERMANS MOST OPEN, GREEKS LEAST WILLING
In both Germany and France, the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches oppose legalizing euthanasia and argue for better palliative care to ease pain for dying patients.
The study was conducted by the Swiss pollster Isopublic in Austria, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.
It did not survey the four European countries that allow assisted suicide, or countries in eastern Europe.
Germans were most open to letting people decide when and how they die, with 87 percent supporting the idea, and results slowly descended to Denmark's 71 percent in 11th place.
Greece was the only exception to this strong support, with only 52 percent backing the idea of allowing assisted suicide.
Spaniards were the most willing to consider asking for help to die, with 78 percent support, followed closely by Germans (77 percent) and the French (75 percent).
In Britain, 71 percent said they might seek assisted suicide while Greece was again the most reluctant with 56 percent saying they might do so.
More than three-quarters of those polled in all countries said only doctors or trained practitioners should perform assisted suicides.
A majority of all respondents said doctors should not lose their licenses if they help a patient die. Results ranged from 84 percent in Britain to 58 percent in Greece.
GERMANS OPPOSE GOVERNMENT BILL
About 30 percent of those polled thought dying patients might occasionally be pressured by relatives or doctors into accepting assisted suicide if it is legalized. Roughly another 30 percent thought this would almost never happen.
In Germany, where the government's bill is now being debated in parliament, 76 percent said the proposed law was wrong to ban assisted suicide if the doctor is paid for the service.
The bill would not punish those helping patients commit suicide, for example by accompanying them to Switzerland where assisted suicide has been legal since 1942.
A rise in dying foreigners - particularly from Germany, France and Britain - ending their lives there has prompted calls for tighter laws, but Zurich voters rejected in 2010 a proposed ban on what opponents called "suicide tourism".
In the United States, assisted suicide is allowed in Oregon, Washington and Montana. Massachusetts voters narrowly defeated a proposal to legalize it there this month.
(Reporting by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Mark Heinrich)