March 21, 2006

First Anniversary of the Death of Terri Schiavo

Pew Forum and Pew Research Center Resources on End-of-Life Issues

This month marks the first anniversary of the death of Terri Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged Florida woman whose medical condition led to an emotional public debate over end-of-life issues. Schiavo died on March 31, 2005, after state courts repeatedly affirmed the right of her husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, to remove her feeding tube and allow her to die. Federal courts, including the Supreme Court, refused to intervene in the case, even after Congress passed a law authorizing federal intervention in an effort to prolong Schiavo’s life.

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The debate over the moral and political implications of death and dying is likely to intensify in the decades ahead, due to the aging of the population, advances in medical technology that enable doctors to prolong life and changing ethical and legal considerations about whether terminally ill patients should be allowed to hasten their own deaths.

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released a poll earlier this year that dealt extensively with end-of-life issues. The Jan. 5 poll found that the public is evenly divided on the issue of physician-assisted suicide; 46% of Americans support the right to assisted suicide while 45% oppose the practice. By more than eight-to-one (84%-10%), however, the public approves of laws that let terminally ill patients make decisions about whether to be kept alive through medical treatment. In instances where a terminally ill patient is unable to communicate, the public supports allowing the closest family member to decide whether to continue medical treatment; 74% agree with this approach, while only 15% say that relatives should not be allowed to make such decisions.

This strong support for allowing the removal of medical treatment and for allowing family members to make these decisions is reflected in public opinion on the Terri Schiavo case. The January Pew poll found that nearly three-quarters of the public (72%) say that Congress should have stayed out of the Schiavo case, while just 17% say Congress did the right thing by requiring federal courts to hear the case. View a summary of the poll findings.

On January 17, 2006, the Supreme Court upheld an Oregon law that allows doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to certain terminally ill patients, who may then choose to end their own lives. The Gonzales v. Oregon decision was a major victory for “right to die” proponents and for Oregon, which can again begin allowing physician-assisted suicide after a more than four-year hiatus.

In September 2005, the Pew Forum published an in-depth backgrounder on the Oregon case, which provides legal and historical analysis of the issues in Gonzales v. Oregon. In January, the Forum published an addendum to the backgrounder analyzing the court’s decision and its possible impact on future cases. View the backgrounder and addendum.

Last year, the Forum hosted two discussions on end-of-life issues. The first, which focused on the ethical implications of assisted suicide, featured Professor Daniel Brock of Harvard University, Professor R. Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin, Professor Robert George of Princeton University and Dr. Carlos Gomez of Capital Hospice. View a full transcript of the discussion. The second discussion focused on the merits of the Oregon case and featured M. Edward Whelan of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and former Clinton administration official Robert Raben of The Raben Group. View a full transcript of the event.