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Pew survey: 1 in 3 Americans want doctors to fight death

By Cathy Lynn Grossman
Religion News Service

More Information

  • Measures

    of a good life

    • The ability to talk or communicate with others: 93 percent rated this extremely or very important.

    • The ability to get “enjoyment out of life”: 90 percent.

    • The ability to feed yourself: 89 percent.

    • Living without severe pain: 87 percent.

    • Retaining long-term memory, and feeling worthwhile in what you do: tied at 83 percent.

    • Being able to dress yourself: 81 percent.

    • Retaining short-term memory for events of the day: 71 percent.

    SOURCE: Pew Research Center



Death may be inevitable, but one in three Americans – including most blacks and Hispanics – want doctors to never quit fighting it.

And that number has nearly doubled in 23 years, a new survey finds.

In 1990, 15 percent of U.S. adults said doctors should do everything possible for a patient, even in the face of incurable illness and pain. Today, 31 percent hold that view, according to a report released Nov. 21 by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.

The majority of U.S. adults (66 percent) still say there are circumstances when a patient should be allowed to die. At the same time, however, the never-say-die view calling for nonstop aggressive treatment has increased across every religion, race, ethnicity and level of education.

“We don’t really know why there is a doubling in that viewpoint,” said the survey’s author, Pew senior researcher Cary Funk, who found the shift “surprising.”

“When it comes to yourself, well, you might just hang on a little longer as you face the reality of identifying your own condition,” said Funk. Doctors “are always offering one more hope, one more treatment. You don’t know what the possibilities are.”

Questions about end-of-life care loom large for the 14 percent of Americans who are 65 or older. And nearly half, 47 percent, of adults surveyed say they have faced these issues in the life of a relative or friend in the past five years.

The “Views on End of Life Medical Treatments” survey reveals a divide by religion, race and ethnicity on what people say they would do if they were suffering with an incurable illness.

More than six in 10 white evangelicals, Catholics and people with no religious identity would tell their doctors to halt treatment and let them die if they were in great pain and had no hope of improvement. For white mainline Protestants, 72 percent would rather stop treatment.

But black Protestants (61 percent) and Hispanics (57 percent) say they would want their doctors to “do everything possible to save their lives.”

However, patients’ doctors and families might have to guess at their end-of-life wishes if they can no longer communicate with them.

The Pew report, based on a survey of 1,994 adults, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points. It was conducted between March 21 and April 8.

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