Americans are split on this question, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. And there are stark differences in opinion based on respondents’ religious affiliation and how religious they are.
Most noteworthy, people with no religious affiliation are the only group with a majority (56%) saying that ventilators should be saved for those with the highest chance of recovery in the event that there are not enough resources to go around, even if that means some patients don’t receive the same aggressive treatment because they are older, sicker and less likely to survive. This view aligns with medical guidelines that typically call for a utilitarian approach — one that prioritizes good outcomes for the greatest number of people.
Only a minority of the religiously unaffiliated overall (though a sizable one at 41%) say ventilators should go to those who need them most at the moment the decision is being made.
These findings are consistent with research showing that people who are not religious tend to prefer utilitarian solutions in a variety of moral dilemmas. This may in part be due to a lack of shared, formalized moral rules among the nonreligious, who are more likely to rely on personal philosophy and ethical principles when resolving moral quandaries. Religious believers, on the other hand, often rely on deeply ingrained moral rules and on guidance from religious leaders and texts. Religious people also may respond negatively to the idea of doctors “playing God” by choosing which patients should receive potentially life-saving treatments.
Indeed, most of the religiously affiliated groups covered in this analysis say ventilators in short supply should go to patients who need them most in the moment, which might mean that fewer people survive but no one is denied treatment based on their age or health status. This view is shared by roughly six-in-ten of both evangelicals (60%) and Protestants from historically black churches (59%). Only one-third of evangelicals believe that priority should be given to those who are most likely to survive with aggressive treatment.
Catholics aren’t as united in their response, but they also are more likely to say that ventilators should be used on people most in need rather than those most likely to recover. Opinions among mainline Protestants are roughly evenly divided.