Thursday, April 07, 2005

Zogby make Aldini crazy...

I almost feel like I should apologize for bringing the issue up again, but this latest Schiavo poll (.pdf - ÞCavanaugh) appears to be a reminder to us all of why polls are limited in their usefulness.

The general headline that seems to have resulted from the poll was, "Americans not in favor of starving Terri Schiavo." Thanks to Ronald Bailey in the H&R comments, here's one Brandi Swindell, National Director of Generation Life, interpreting the poll:
"This new Zogby poll shows what Americans thought specifically about the slow and deliberate death of Terri Schiavo. With this new information, we see it is very probable that the news networks were wrong when they assigned a drop in the approval of President Bush to his involvement in Terri Schiavo's case. What is more plausible, is that Americans think less of both President Bush and Governor Bush for entering into a fight for Terri Schiavo's life, but then backing down to a tyrant 'state' judge. It's a political fact that America has little regard for losers, and even less for quitters."

o-kay. Anyway, here's the question that seems to have gotten the biggest buzz, with 7% should and 80% should not:
44. "If a disabled person is not terminally ill, not in a coma, and not being kept alive on life support, and they have no written directive, should or should they not be denied food and water?"

So note #1 about this poll would have to be that at least 7% of respondents completely refused to listen to the actual questions, except to translate them to "Terri Schiavo: tube-out or tube-in". Either that, or they would choose to lock the kitchen door rather than let their wheelchair-bound relative in from the living room for dinner.

There's 11 questions in total on the linked .pdf file. It would appear that fully eight of them are either loony or completely uninstructive. Take these couple:
39. Do you agree or disagree that the representative branch of governments should intervene when the judicial branch appears to deny basic rights to the disabled? (Agree 42%, Disagree 48%, Not Sure 10%)
and
39.1. Do you agree or disagree that the representative branch of governments should intervene when the judicial branch appears to deny basic rights to minorities? (57/33/10)

I'm not exactly sure what to derive from this. I assume that lots of people answered Agree, because when it comes to "rights", they're in favour. No doubt there's plenty of Jay's lever-pullers as well (Something Bad happened? Someone should do Something!). But come on--appears? So, half the respondents in this poll are essentially saying that any time a judge makes an unpopular decision - or one they don't agree with - they'd be happy to see a politician step in.

Those results have got to be cocked-up by the fact that the poll is Schiavo-related; that would also explain why apparently 15% of respondents would take up for me if I was black, but not if I was blind. It also makes some sense of this question:
43. Do you agree or disagree that it is proper that the federal government intervene when disabled people are denied food and water by a state court judge's order?
(Agree 44%, Disagree 43%, Not Sure 13%)

If a state judge ordered the kitchen blockaded at the local rehab hospital, most (i.e. a lot more than 44%) people would agree with just about any sort of intervention, including armed--and that's exactly how this question would be understood by anyone who has never heard of Terri Schiavo.

But as noted above, the root problem with this poll is its premises.
38. When there is conflicting evidence on whether or not a patient would want to be on a feeding tube, should elected officials order that a feeding tube be removed, or should they order that it remain in place?

As I think I've noted before, I'm unwilling to stipulate that "elected officials" should enter into it at all. Here's some poll questions I'd like to see:

1. "If you became incapacitated and did not have a written directive, would you prefer that decisions regarding your treatment be made by your spouse, or by a majority vote of your state legislators? Before you answer, bear in the mind that this vote would likely be taken years before your incapacitation, and thus without any specific knowledge of your wishes, your circumstances, or your prognosis."

2. "If you went into a persistent vegetative state identical to that of Terri Schiavo, did not have a written directive, and your spouse stated that you would wish to have your feeding tube removed, should the law assume that your spouse is lying?"

Let's stipulate for a moment, as agreed by 46% of people in the Zogby poll, that "the law should provide exceptions to the right of a spouse to act as the guardian for his or her incapacitated spouse"; this was certainly a major issue regarding Michael Schiavo. The first of two broad justifications where we would make these exceptions pertains to the ongoing devotion of the healthy spouse. At one end of the scale would be total devotion (e.g. spouse remains celibate and visits for several hours daily), where the wishes expressed by the healthy spouse on behalf of the incapacitated spouse should be respected entirely. At the other end would be zero devotion (e.g. spouse has moved away, started another family, and never visits); this spouse's wishes should be ignored.

3. "If there is a dispute over whether you are sufficiently devoted to your incapacitated spouse, would you prefer that detailed descriptions of sufficient and insufficient devotion be voted into law, or would you prefer that a judge make a decision specific to your individual set of circumstances?"

The other justification advanced for removing rights of guardianship from Michael Schiavo and those like him pertains to the financial benefit accruing to the surviving spouse. We rightly don't approve of people killing for money. On the other hand, we probably ought to be careful about drawing too clear a connection. If I want to maximize the likelihood that my spouse's directions regarding my medical treatment are respected, should I skip taking out a life insurance policy?

4. "If you are incapacitated, and there is an allegation that your spouse wants you dead 'for the money', would you prefer that this allegation be assessed against a dollar figure voted into law, or would you prefer that a judge make a decision specific to your individual set of circumstances?"

I realize I'm a bit all over the place here, so let me wrap up with two points: hard cases make bad law, and these are issues which are far too important to be influenced by things as ridiculous as push-polling.

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