Poll Discovers Great Differences in End-Of-Treatment Preferences by Race, Denominations

A Pew Research Center survey on end-of-life decisions has found big differences among Americans, with most white mainline Protestants indicating they would like all treatments stopped so they could die when faced of a terminal disease and great pain, while most black Protestants would want everything to be done to save their lives.

The poll, conducted between March 21 to April 8, 2013 among 1,994 adults with a margin of error plus or minus 2.9 percentage points, found that of all adults, 57 percent would want all treatments stopped in a hopeless situation in which they were in a lot of pain, with 35 percent preferring doctors do everything possible to keep fighting for their lives.

However, if the incurable disease simply made it hard for them to function in day-to-day life, respondents to the poll were split right down the middle – 46 percent said they would prefer treatments stopped, another 46 percent said they would want efforts to continue, while 9 percent were not sure.

Notable disparities were found among religious denominations in response to the question. White mainline Protestants (72 percent), white Catholics (65 percent) and white evangelical Protestants (62 percent) all said that they would prefer medical treatments stopped in the face of an incurable disease and a great deal of pain.

On the other hand, 57 percent of Hispanic Catholics said that they would like doctors to continue fighting for their lives in the same situation, and 61 percent of black Protestants agreed.

The answers were similar in the general race category, with 65 percent of white people choosing to stop treatments, compared to 40 percent of Hispanics and 33 percent of African Americans.

There were differences in preferences among age-groups as well, with older people in general indicating they would prefer to be allowed to die. While only 54 percent of 18-29 year olds said that they would choose treatments to be stopped, 76 percent of 65-74 year olds and 74 percent of 75-year-olds and older went with the same option.

"Over the last quarter-century, the balance of opinion has moved modestly away from the majority position on this issue," Pew noted. "While still a minority, the share of the public that says doctors and nurses should do everything possible to save a patient's life has gone up 9 percentage points since 2005 and 16 points since 1990."

The poll analyzed a number of other questions, including public opinion on the morality of suicide, physician-assisted suicide, and thoughts on whether life will be better 10 years from now.