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The Terri Schiavo Case in Review

Support for her being allowed to die consistent

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Terri Schiavo lived in relative obscurity for much of her 41 years, but in the last two years, she was at the center of what eventually became a national obsession and firestorm of controversy. Naturally, in today's hothouse media environment, controversy nets intense media coverage. As a result, a large majority of Americans ultimately reached the point at which they said they were following the Schiavo situation at least somewhat closely.

There wasn't a great deal of public opinion polling on this case until recently, but we have seen enough survey research accumulate just in the last several weeks to allow us to reach several conclusions.

1. A majority of Americans believe that it was appropriate that Terri Schiavo's feeding tube be removed and that she be allowed to die.

Gallup first asked a question relating to the Schiavo case (although not mentioning her by name) in October 2003:

When a patient is in a persistent vegetative state caused by irreversible brain damage, do you think his or her spouse should or should not be allowed by law to make a final decision to end the patient's life by some painless means?

Yes, should
be allowed

No, should not
be allowed

No
opinion

2003 Oct 24-26

80%

17

3

At that point, well before the case became a major media focus, 8 in 10 Americans said that a spouse should be allowed to make a final decision to end his or her spouse's life.

Most other questions asked since then have dealt specifically with the Schiavo case, usually by giving respondents a description of the situation, and then asking their opinions. All have shown majority support for allowing Schiavo to die.

Here are some recent examples:

Gallup

(How closely have you been following the news about Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who has been in a persistent vegetative state since 1990, and whose parents and husband disagree over whether she should be kept alive) As you may know, on Friday the feeding tube keeping Terri Schiavo alive was removed. Based on what you have heard or read about the case, do you think that the feeding tube should or should not have been removed?

Should have

Should not have

No opinion

2005 Mar 18-20

56%

31

13

TIME/SRBI

Terri Schiavo has been in what doctors call a persistent vegetative or coma-like state for 15 years, with no higher brain activity. Her husband says that Terri would not want to be kept alive artificially in this state. He has asked that the feeding tube that keeps her alive be removed. Her parents disagree, saying that Terri would not want to die this way, and contend that her condition could be improved. A Florida judge upheld her husband's request to remove the feeding tube. Do you agree or disagree with the decision to remove her feeding tube?

Agree

Disagree

Unsure

2005 Mar 22-24

59%

35

7

CBS News

(Terri Schiavo has been in a persistent vegetative state since 1990. Terri's husband says his wife would not want to be kept alive under these circumstances and he wants her feeding tube removed. Terri's parents believe her condition could improve and they want the feeding tube to remain.) What do you think should have happened in this case? Should the feeding tube have been removed or should it have remained? Partial sample (N=321)

Removed

Remained

Unsure

2005 Mar 21-22

61%

28

11

It is important to note that the questions all provide the respondent with basic information about the situation, including the words "persistent vegetative."

Some critics have argued that these descriptions are inaccurate and that the resulting responses are biased. Recent questions that ask for opinions about the Schiavo case give an explanation or preamble, so it is impossible to determine with precision what the impact of the specific question wording is on the responses.

However, there are several reasons to believe that Americans most likely support the idea of Schiavo being allowed to die, regardless of the question wording involved.

First, recent poll results indicate that there has been a great deal of attention paid to the case. If a situation is well known to respondents, in general, they are less likely to be affected by the particular way in which the situation is described. 

Second, responses to a recent Gallup Poll question show that most Americans believe that Schiavo would not have recovered significantly even if the tube had been replaced, suggesting that the public has a basic belief that she was beyond improvement:

Just your best guess -- If the feeding tube that was helping to keep Terri Schiavo alive were reinserted on a permanent basis, how much of a chance do you think there is that she would eventually show significant improvement in her brain activity: a very good chance, a good chance, a slight chance, or no chance whatsoever?

Very
good

Good

Slight

None

Unsure

2005 Mar 22

4%

9

29

54

4

A majority of Americans also appear to believe that Schiavo's husband, Michael, was telling the truth when he argued that she would not want to be kept alive -- again suggesting that the public's agreement that she be allowed to die is rooted in more than a temporary response to the way in which specific questions were worded:

As you may know, Michael Schiavo said his wife, Terri, told him that she would not want to be kept alive by artificial means. Do you think he is definitely telling the truth, probably telling the truth, probably not telling the truth, or definitely not telling the truth? Options rotated

Definitely
truth

Probably
truth

Probably
not truth

Definitely
not truth

Unsure

2005 Mar 22

21%

43

17

8

11

2. Americans did not approve of government intervention into this case.

This is one of the most consistent public opinion findings relating to the Schiavo case. Results from a number of poll questions, asked after Congress passed legislation and President George W. Bush signed it into law early in the morning of March 21, have shown strong opposition to government involvement in the situation.

Here are several examples of these questions:

TIME/SRBI

Congress met in a special session this past weekend to pass legislation moving the Schiavo case from the Florida state courts, which have repeatedly ruled to remove the feeding tube, to the federal court system. Regardless of your opinion on the Schiavo case, do you think it was right for Congress to intervene in this matter, or not?

Right

Not right

Unsure

2005 Mar 22-24

20%

75

5

How about President Bush, who signed the legislation this weekend moving jurisdiction to the federal courts? Was it right for him to intervene, or not?

Right

Not right

Unsure

2005 Mar 22-24

24%

70

6

Do you think that Congress and the President's intervention had more to do with their values and principles, or more to do with politics?

Value and
principles

Politics

BOTH
(vol.)

NEITHER
(vol.)

Unsure

2005 Mar 22-24

25%

65

4

1

5

If your congressman voted to move the Schiavo case to the federal courts, would this make you more likely to vote for him or less likely?

More
likely

Less
likely

DOESN'T
MATTER
(vol.)

Unsure

2005 Mar 22-24

21%

54

18

7

CBS News

Do you think Congress and the President should be involved in deciding what happens to Terri Schiavo, or is this a matter Congress and the President should stay out of?

Should be
involved

Should
stay out

Unsure

2005 Mar 21-22

13%

82

5

Regardless of your opinion about the Terri Schiavo case, in general, do you think the federal government should decide whether it is legal for family members to remove a patient from life support, or should each state government decide, or are these issues something the government should stay out of?

Federal

State

Government
stay out

Unsure

2005 Mar 21-22

9%

13

75

3

Congress has passed a bill that would require Terri Schiavo's case to be heard in U.S. federal court. Do you think Congress passed this bill because they really care about what happens in this case, or do you think they passed the bill to advance a political agenda?

Really
care

Political
agenda

BOTH
(vol.)

NEITHER
(vol.)

Unsure

2005 Mar 21-22

13%

74

3

1

9

Gallup

Do you approve or disapprove of the way each of the following has handled the case involving Terri Schiavo? How about [see below]?

 2005 Mar 22
(sorted by "approve")

Approve

Disap-
prove

Unsure

%

%

%

The media

43

46

11

George W. Bush

31

52

17

The Democrats in Congress

28

42

30

The Republicans in Congress

26

47

27

3. Americans would want their child or spouse to die if they were in a similar situation. More broadly, the American public supports the related concept of doctor-assisted suicide.

Gallup asked Americans what they would do if they had a relative in the same condition as Schiavo. The results show that by about a 2-to-1 ratio, Americans say they would personally have a feeding tube removed if the situation involved a child and if the situation involved a spouse:

Suppose you had a child who was in the same condition as Terri Schiavo, and it were up to you to decide whether to keep that child alive through the use of a feeding tube. What would you, personally, decide to do in that situation [ROTATED -- remove the feeding tube (or) keep the feeding tube in place]?

Remove

Keep in place

No opinion

2005 Mar 18-20

56%

34

10

Suppose you had a spouse who was in the same condition as Terri Schiavo, and it were up to you to decide whether to keep your spouse alive through the use of a feeding tube. What would you, personally, decide to do in that situation [ROTATED -- remove the feeding tube (or) keep the feeding tube in place]?

Remove

Keep in place

No opinion

2005 Mar 18-20

61%

30

9

Gallup has asked questions about "doctor-assisted" suicide since 1947. A majority of Americans were opposed in the 1947 and 1950 surveys, but polls conducted since 1973 have shown consistent majority support. Gallup has asked this question regularly in May of each of the last four years, and in these surveys, between 65% and 72% have supported the concept.

When a person has a disease that cannot be cured, do you think doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient's life by some painless means if the patient and his family request it?

                       

Yes

No

No opinion

%

%

%

2004 May 2-4

69

29

2

 

 

 

2003 May 19-21

72

25

3

2002 May 6-9

72

26

2

2001 May 10-14

65

31

4

1996 Jul 26-28

69

26

5

1996 Apr 9-10

75

22

3

1990 Nov 15-18

65

31

4

1973 Jul 6-9

53

40

7

1950 Jan 8-13

36

54

10

1947 Jun 6-11

37

54

9

When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living in severe pain, do you think doctors should or should not be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it?

Should

Should not

No opinion

%

%

%

2004 May 2-4

65

31

4

 

 

 

2003 May 19-21

62

36

2

2002 May 6-9

62

34

4

2001 May 10-14

68

27

5

1999 Mar 12-14^

61

35

4

1998 Jun 5-7^

59

39

2

1997 Jun 23-24^

57

35

8

1997 Jan 3-5^

58

37

5

1996 Jul 26-28^

52

42

6

 

 

 

^1996-1999 WORDING: When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living in severe pain, do you think doctors should be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it, or not?

4. The long-term impact of the Schiavo situation is difficult to determine, but it is clear that the case has generated a strong interest in living wills. Americans are also concerned that the Schiavo case may lead to a situation in which Congress intervenes in the lives of Americans in the years to come.

Polls conducted by various organizations over the last several weeks have shown that about a third of Americans have living wills. But a poll conducted by TIME magazine shows that almost 7 in 10 Americans who do not have living wills say the Schiavo case made them "think about drafting a living will or discussing with your family your wishes for medical treatment should you be unable to communicate them yourself."

TIME/SRBI

(Terri Schiavo has been in what doctors call a 'persistent vegetative' or coma-like state for 15 years, with no higher brain activity. Her husband says that Terri would not want to be kept alive artificially in this state. He has asked that the feeding tube that keeps her alive be removed. Her parents disagree, saying that Terri would not want to die this way and contend that her condition could be improved. A Florida judge upheld her husband's request to remove the feeding tube.) …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?

Subpopulation/Note: Those who do not currently have a living will (62%)

Yes

No

Don't know

2005 Mar 22-24

69%

30

1

There will no doubt continue to be speculation about the long-term implications of the Schiavo case on the nation's political and judicial systems. Conservatives have argued that the case will be a rallying cry for those who want to do more to ensure that the country embraces a "culture of life," while liberals have argued that there may be a backlash against those who attempt to legislate personal decisions. Given that the majority of Americans are clearly against government intervention in the case, the results of a recent CBS poll on the topic may not be surprising. The poll shows that two-thirds of Americans are apparently worried that this case will allow Congress to intervene in Americans' lives in the future:

Do you think that Congress' actions in this case would make it easier for Congress to intervene in the lives of individual Americans in the future? If Yes: Are you concerned about that, or not?

Easier/
Concerned

Easier/
Not
Concerned

Not easier

Unsure

2005 Mar 21-22

68%

9

17

6

Survey Methods

Results in the current survey are based on telephone interviews with 909 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted March 18-20, 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Gallup

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