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When Americans Are Willing to Die

Is there proof of a lingering Schiavo effect?
via Wikimedia Commons

The results of a survey that will likely top any future “really depressing survey” surveys, The Pew Research Center’s “Views on End of Life Medical Treatments,” came out today. Pew asked almost 2,000 Americans to consider when medical treatment can stop, when suicide is morally acceptable, and the circumstances when they’d prefer to be left to die.

If you remember the seven-year legal saga surrounding Terri Schiavo, which climaxed with an intervention from President George W. Bush himself, it may come as a shock to you that twice as many Americans believe that there are circumstances where the patient should be allowed to die, than Americans who believe medical staff should “always do whatever they can to save the patient.”


This latter group, though, has been steadily growing since Pew first conducted the survey back in 1990, when only 15 percent of people said medical staff should always be trying to save the patient. The percentage of respondents who said they didn’t know if there were circumstances where people should be allowed to die has shrunk somewhat, going from 15 percent in 1990 down to just 3 percent this year.

Is this proof of a lingering Schiavo effect, where death itself has become politicized? Possibly, although both of these trends have continued since 2005, when Schiavo died and the national discussion about end of life care calmed down.

Rather, what might be at play here is an aging population, where these questions are less often considered in the abstract. Pew discovered that almost half of Americans say they’ve had a friend or relative who has had a terminal illness or been in a coma in the last five years, and a quarter of the general population, 23 percent, reported that the issue of withholding life-sustaining treatment arose for a loved one. Think about that: statistically one in four people who cut you off in traffic might have been considering letting a loved one die.

However, broken up by age, the Pew results show that older respondents are more likely to believe that there are circumstances where a patient should be allowed to die. As our population ages, there is a chance that trends will reverse.

One strange wrinkle to the study is that even though 66 percent of Americans believe there are circumstances when medical treatment should stop, respondents were almost evenly split on whether physician-assisted suicide was appropriate for the terminally ill—49 percent disapprove of laws that allow it, compared to 47 percent who don’t. It’s not necessarily a question of suicide itself that bothers respondents, as over six in 10 said it was a “moral right” when someone is suffering great pain with no hope of improvement. The question seems to hinge on the “physician-assisted” aspect.

There are other little chestnuts into the American psyche in there if you're so inclined—with all deference to Luther, being Protestant or Catholic isn't predictive of your attitudes towards end of life care as your race. One of Pew's take aways seems to be that we aren't thinking about death or writing out living wills nearly enough. To be fair, if I had to spend as much time with this data as they did, I'd want everyone else to have to do so too.