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More than two-thirds of Americans believe there are circumstances in which a patient should be allowed to die, but they are closely divided on whether it should be legal for a doctor to help terminally ill patients end their own lives by prescribing fatal drugs, a new AP-Ipsos poll finds.

The results were released Tuesday, just days before Dr. Jack Kevorkian is freed from a Michigan prison after serving more than eight years for second-degree murder in the poisoning of a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Kevorkian’s defiant assisted suicide campaign, which he waged for years before his conviction, fueled nationwide debate about patients’ right to die and the role that physicians should play.

Though demonized by his critics as a callous killer, Kevorkian — who is to be released Friday — maintains relatively strong public support. The AP-Ipsos poll found that 53 percent of those surveyed thought he should not have been jailed; 40 percent supported his imprisonment. The results were similar to an ABC News poll in 1999 that found 55 percent disagreeing with his conviction.

The new AP-Ipsos poll asked whether it should be legal for doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to help terminally ill patients end their own lives — a practice currently allowed in Oregon but in no other states. Forty-eight percent said it should be legal; 44 percent said it should be illegal.

More broadly, 68 percent said there are circumstances when a patient should be allowed to die, while 30 percent said doctors and nurses, in all circumstances, should do everything possible to save the life of a patient.

A majority of respondents — 55 percent — said they would not consider ending their own lives if ill with a terminal disease. Thirty-five percent said they would consider that option.

Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law took effect in 1997. Through last year, 292 people — mostly stricken with cancer — have died under its provisions, which allow terminally ill, mentally competent adults to administer life-ending medication prescribed by a physician.

In addition to Oregon, three European countries — Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands — authorize assistance by doctors in the deaths of patients.

Oregon’s law has been reaffirmed by state voters and has survived intense legal challenges, but has yet to be emulated in any other state. Bills have been defeated by lawmakers in Vermont, Hawaii, Wisconsin and Washington; ballot measures to allow physician-assisted death have lost in Washington, California, Michigan and Maine.

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