Public attitudes on Schiavo: Update

Reason for cautious optimism. But can’t we get a poll that asks the questions straight?

Where we left our hero:

The good news was an ABC News poll showing lopsided majorities against Congressional intervention (60-35) and in favor of removing the tube (63-28).

The bad news was the discovery that the poll’s results were based on questions that arguably reflected the reality of the case but certainly didn’t reflect the face of the case as seen in the media, and therefore clearly biased the results compared to unprompted answers. (E.g., respondents were told that “Schiavo suffered brain damage and has been on life support for 15 years. Doctors say she has no consciousness and her condition is irreversible.”)

Today there’s more polling.

CNN/USA Today/Gallup asked somewhat less loaded questions (e.g., “Terri Schiavo is a Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state who was being kept alive through the use of a feeding tube.”) and got somewhat less lopsided answers, but still encouraging ones: 53% agreed with judge Whittemore that the tube should not be reconnected, 39% disagreed.

CBS reports astonishing margins against Congressional intervention (82-13), against reconnecting the feeding tube (66-27), and for the opinion that Congress was grandstanding (74) rather than acting out of genuine concern (13). As in the ABC poll, the anti-feeding forces are as intense in their opinions as the pro-feeding forces. And those giving Congress good performance marks is down to 34% from 41% a month ago.

But here again, the question provides the context that would be appropriate in a news story but is certain to skew the answers: “Terri Schiavo has been in a persistent vegetative state since 1990.”

What I’d like to see is a poll with virtually no context: Should Terry Schiavo’s feeding tube be reconnected? Was the Congress right to intervene in the Schiavo case?

Lacking that, I think we need to be cautious in interpreting the polls.

If the public believed what I believe about the facts, solid majorities would think Congress had done the wrong thing and the courts the right thing. But the picture they’re shown is of a woman alive and smiling whose mother is pleading for her life. We still don’t know what they think about that.

Correction The earlier version of this post misreported that CBS didn’t publish its questions. In fact they were there but I didn’t find the right button on the CBS website. My bad.


A Florida poll with what seem like straight questions nonetheless yields encouraging answers. Maybe this is why the Florida Senate backed off on Terri Bill III.

Do you support the decision to remove Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube?

Yes 61%

No 30%

Undecided 9%

Do you approve or disapprove of the Congress and president intervening in the Terri Schiavo case?

Support 33%

Oppose 64%

Undecided 3%

Hat tip: Daily Kos

Second update

Kevin Drum dismisses concerns about the wording of the questions as conservative bellyaching, and regards the CBS results as demonstrating that the ABC results were right and that the country is against DeLay and Bush on this one. Naturally, Mickey Kaus disagrees. Less naturally, I agree with Mickey. (Alert the media: man bites dog.) The point is not whether the questions the pollsters asked contained an accurate description of the case; the question is how the answers the respondents gave approximated their unprompted attitudes and their likely voting behavior.

The polls so far demonstrate only that the country would be against DeLay and Bush on this one if the voters knew the facts. It says nothing about how those who haven’t been read that poll question feel about the apparently smiling woman whose mother is pleading for her life.

That suggests that the key task is getting the facts out there: no reputable neurologist thinks there’s anyone home in the body that Terri Schiavo used to inhabit.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: