Public Opinion About Life and Death - Withholding Nutrition And Hydration: The Terri Schiavo Case
living march feeding poll
The death of Terri Schiavo on April 1, 2005, and the events leading up to her death resulted in an intense debate among Americans over end-of-life decisions and brought new attention to the question of whom should make the decision to stop life support, most specifically nutrition and hydration. Terri Schiavo died on April 1, 2005, after her feeding tube was withdrawn days earlier. Schiavo had been in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) since 1990. Her husband, Michael Schiavo, believing that she would never recover and saying that his wife did not want to be kept alive by artificial means, petitioned a Florida court to remove her feeding tube. Her parents, however, believed that she could feel, understand, and respond. They opposed the idea of removing the feeding tube. After years of legal disputes, the feeding tube was removed permanently and Shiavo died. (See Chapter 8.)
Two primary questions emerged as the nation watched the Schiavo case unfold: (1) If you were in a PVS would you want to be kept alive by artificial means?, and (2) Who should have the final say in the matter if you had not left an advance directive (living will)? A March 29, 2005, Gallup Poll, "Americans Choose Death over Vegetative State" notes that 53% of respondents worry "a great deal" about "the possibility of being vegetable-like for some period of time." In exploring this issue more deeply, the March 13, 2005, ABC News/Washington Post poll "Terri Schiavo" asked a random national sample of 1,001 adults: "If you were in this condition [that of Terri Schiavo] would you want to be kept alive or not?" Only 8% said "yes," while 87% said "no." When asked who should have the final say, 65% felt that the spouse should have the final say, while 25% believed it should be the parents.
It may be hard to determine the effect of the Terri Schiavo case on the American public, but in an attempt to do so, a FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll of March 30, 2005, asked the question: "Prior to the recent coverage of the Terri Schiavo case, had you ever discussed end-of-life medical decisions with your spouse, family, or friends?" A huge majority—78%—reported that they had. Only 20% had not. Thus, a majority of the American public had dealt with this question prior to it being highlighted in the media. Nonetheless, the case appeared to generate strong interest in living wills as suggested by a March 25, 2005, poll by Time magazine/SRBI (a company that conducts opinion surveys). Results of the survey revealed that 93% of respondents had heard of a living will, but only 37% had executed such a document. When those who had no living will were asked, "Has the Schiavo case made you think about drafting a living will or discussing with your family your wishes for medical treatment should you be unable to communicate them yourself?" 69% responded "yes."