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How the public responded to the Schiavo controversy: evidence from letters to editors
  1. Eric Racine1,2,3,
  2. Marta Karczewska1,
  3. Matthew Seidler1,
  4. Rakesh Amaram4,
  5. Judy Illes4,5,6
  1. 1Neuroethics Research Unit, Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal, Québec, Canada
  2. 2Department of Medicine, University of Montréal, Québec, Canada
  3. 3Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Biomedical Ethics Unit, McGill University, Montréal, Québec, Canada
  4. 4Center for Biomedical Ethics, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, USA
  5. 5Department of Pediatrics, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, USA
  6. 6National Core for Neuroethics, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Dr Eric Racine, Neuroethics Research Unit, Office 1535, IRCM, 110 Pine Avenue West, Montréal, Québec H2W 1R7, Canada; Eric.racine{at}


The history and genesis of major public clinical ethics controversies is intimately related to the publication of opinions and responses in media coverage. To provide a sample of public response in the media, this paper reports the results of a content analysis of letters to editors published in the four most prolific American newspapers for the Schiavo controversy. Opinions expressed in the letters sampled strongly supported the use of living wills and strongly condemned public attention to the case as well as political interventions. Letters tended to be against withdrawal of life support, proxy consent and associated procedures as well as against court decisions and legal procedures. In comparison with reports written by journalists, letters to editors contained fewer controversial claims about Schiavo''s neurological condition and behavioural repertoire but similar loaded language to describe withdrawal of life support. Distinct public discourses can be encountered in different stakeholders suggesting complex and extensive pluralism even within the media.

  • Journalism/mass media
  • prolongation of life and euthanasia

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  • Funding Support for this research comes from the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal (ER), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (ER), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (ER), the Greenwall Foundation (JI) and NIH/NINDS RO1 #NS045831-04 (JI).

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.