Poll: Two-Thirds Back Spouse in Right to Die Cases

In family disputes over life support, a broad majority of Americans think final say should go to a patient's spouse rather than his or her parents -- placing the public firmly on the side of Terri Schiavo's husband and the Florida courts that have ruled in his favor.

Schiavo has been in a persistent vegetative state after suffering extensive brain damage brought on by heart failure in 1990, when she was 26. She left no living will, and her parents and husband have been locked in a dispute on whether to continue life support. Her feeding tube is to be removed Friday, though legislators may intervene.

In a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, 65 percent of Americans say the spouse rather than the parents should have final say in such disputes; 25 percent say it should be the parents.

Schiavo's husband, Michael, wants to discontinue life support, saying that would be her wish. Her parents want life support continued. Here, too, the husband's position is in line with what most Americans would want for themselves: Eighty-seven percent say that if they were in this condition, they would want life support terminated.

Living Will

A living will or health care proxy is intended to avoid disputes like the Schiavo family's. But, like Schiavo, most Americans lack such a document: Fifty-seven percent say they don't have a living will or health care proxy, unchanged from an ABC News poll in 2002. Such documents can include instructions for care if the patient is unable to express his or her wishes, and designate a person to make medical decisions.

Sampling, data collection and tabulation for this poll were done by TNS.

As Schiavo's case illustrates, brain damage can afflict people of all ages. But older Americans are far more likely to plan for such instances. Seven in 10 senior citizens say they have a living will or health care proxy; that declines to just 25 percent of people under 30, Schiavo's age group when she was stricken.

Better-educated Americans are also more likely to have living wills.


While majorities of all demographic groups in this poll say spouses rather than parents should have the final say on life support, there are some differences in degree.

Religion is one factor: Evangelical Protestants side with the spouse over the parents by 55 percent to 33 percent, but among non-evangelical Protestants it's a much broader 75 percent to 16 percent. However, big majorities of evangelical and non-evangelical Protestants alike say they themselves would not want to be kept alive -- 83 percent and 93 percent, respectively.

There's also some difference among ideological groups. Seventy-three percent of liberals and 69 percent of moderates think it should be up to the spouse; that declines to 58 percent of conservatives. Again, though, there's less of a difference on what people in these groups would want for themselves: anywhere from 82 percent of conservatives to 94 percent of liberals would not want life support.

Who should have the final say?
Spouse Parents
All 65% 25
Evangelical Protestants 55 33
Non-evangelical Protestants 75 16
Liberals 73 19
Moderates 69 23
Conservatives 58 30

Would you want life support?
Yes No
All 8% 87
Evangelical Protestants 13 83
Non-evangelical Protestants 6 93
Liberals 5 94
Moderates 7 89
Conservatives 12 82

Michael Schiavo has won a series of court rulings to gain permission to remove his wife's feeding tube. These were blocked by "Terri's Law," passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Jeb Bush in late 2003; the state Supreme Court subsequently ruled that law unconstitutional. The latest court ruling allows the feeding tube to be removed Friday; however, both state and federal legislators have said they'll seek to intervene.


This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone March 10-13, 2005, among a random national sample of 1,001 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation conducted by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

Click here for PDF version with full questionnaire and results.

You can find more ABC News polls in our Poll Vault.