End of Life Issues: Terri Schiavo Case

The Louis Finkelstein Institute has been conducting public-interest surveys of physicians in order to gauge their opinions about religious, moral, and public-policy questions. In conjunction with the Institute's partner, HCD Research, polls are fielded via the Internet to working physicians in the United States. HCD maintains a database of 500,000 physicians.

The latest survey was designed to take advantage of the extraordinary public interest in the tragic case of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman currently kept alive by a feeding tube. 851 physicians replied to the survey, which was fielded from March 18 to March 20. The main finding is that a large majority of doctors (79%) thought that it was ethical to remove a feeding tube from a person who will die without it. With respect to the specific case of Terri Schiavo, 77% of doctors thought that it was ethical to remove her feeding tube. These findings are noteworthy for the strength of doctors' responses. Doctors in the majority are not hesitant about what is ethically indicated in this case. Doctors were also asked who should be involved in such decisions. The majority believed that the patient's spouse (83%) and family (65%), and peer-review physicians (61%) ought to be involved. A minority would include a larger circle of decision makers, including professional ethicists (30%), and clergy (11%). Only 6% thought that lawmakers or Congress should be involved in the decision. For doctors, as for the medical-ethics community, removing a feeding tube under circumstances similar to the Schiavo case appears to be a largely settled issue.