NEW YORK — A brain-damaged woman in bed, slowly dying: The quintessential image of the Terri Schiavo case riveted millions of Americans who were deeply moved by its pathos. From any vantage point, the situation was heartbreaking and compelling — testing an ordinary family with dilemmas that everyone fears.

This was no O.J. Simpson-style, must-see celebrity saga, even though VIPs ranging from President Bush to the Rev. Jesse Jackson became involved. The questions raised and the conversations provoked during Schiavo's last weeks were more complicated and more sobering, extending into the most fundamental of topics.

"It was the most profound national discussion we have had about death, about family and about decision-making that I've ever witnessed," said Laurie Zoloth, a professor of medical ethics at Northwestern University. "It has made every American family confront with seriousness of purpose, with passion and with love what the limits of medicine are, what the ends of human life ought to be."

The Rev. George Dean Carter, a Baptist minister and chaplain at a hospice in Lumberton, N.C., said he heard colleagues, friends and others talking daily about the case — some as though the stranger in Florida, glimpsed only in old photographs and oft-repeated video clips, was their new best friend.

But even in Carter's relatively conservative community, views seemed split down the middle — half urging "Let her go in peace," half insisting "Life is life."

He recalled eating lunch at a Lumberton pizza place last week; when the TV news turned to the Schiavo story, "the room seemed captivated."

"You could hear, table to table, it was almost everyone's topic of discussion," he said. "We all saw our sister, our aunt, our mother in that story."

John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, said the case was riveting largely because it was so difficult — had Terri Schiavo's physical condition been just a little better, or a little worse, a resolution might have come more easily.

"End-of-life issues are something everyone is going to face at one time or another, and this was a particularly tough case because the people most directly related to Terri disagreed on what to do," Green said. "A lot of Americans, whatever side they came down on, were moved by the pleas from both sides."

The impact of the case even echoed internationally, provoking what Michael Schiavo's lawyer, George Felos, called "a worldwide dialogue." The Vatican pleaded fervently to keep Terri Schiavo alive, the Netherlands reopened debate on its policy of legalized euthanasia, Jewish and Islamic scholars re-examined their faiths' approaches to end-of-life decisions.

While several polls showed a majority of Americans supporting Michael Schiavo's efforts to have his wife's feeding tube removed, the case divided almost every faction and community that grappled with it.

Doctors argued over the medical details, conservatives and liberals differed within their own ranks over whether Congress should intervene. While most major disability organizations supported efforts to keep Schiavo alive, some in the movement vehemently disagreed.

"We should not develop a 'community position' on such an emotional issue based on who shouts the loudest," contended New York City activist Marvin Wasserman, who termed the case "a private family agony."

Marti Schlagel, who runs a VistaCare hospice program in Sun City, Ariz., was one of many Americans who observed the case through the prism of her own family's struggle with a difficult death. They argued among themselves in 1983 over whether to put her cancer-stricken father on a ventilator or allow him to die.

Schlagel suggested that a combination of empathy and apprehension drew Americans to Schiavo's ordeal.

"There's fear in people's eyes of, 'Are we really not doing everything we can do to keep people alive?"' she said.

For the fervent faction that protested and prayed in vain, hoping that Schiavo would be kept alive, the case may leave enduring bitterness.

The Rev. Daniel Sparks, an Anglican priest from Birmingham, Ala., who joined the vigil outside Terri Schiavo's hospice in Florida, said voters should not forgive the judges and politicians who failed to block removal of her feeding tube.

"These politicians who claim they affirm life yet will not act to protect life, they are accomplices to murder," Sparks said. "Government leaders who sign legislation and then say, 'Oh well, I did what I could' and wash their hands — they are accountable."

A very different frustration arose among some advocates for poor Americans, who said the attention and resources devoted to the case were evidence of misplaced national priorities. They suggested a degree of hypocrisy among politicians who focused so heavily on Schiavo's predicament at a time when the Bush administration is pushing for cuts in Medicaid spending.

If the case has positive consequences, one is likely to be an increased willingness among Americans to draft a living will and discuss end-of-life wishes with their family. A recent poll indicated 63 percent of Florida adults did not have living wills, with half of that group prompted by the Schiavo case to start family talks on the topic.

Zoloth, the Northwestern ethicist, said America may benefit in other ways, simply because the national discussion was so challenging.

"Ultimately, even in all the time of chaos and sensationalism, it was a conversation that was carried on with a kind of desperate seriousness that was astonishing to see," she said. "In the end, the constitutional process held, the entire state and federal court system held — America's basic decency and common sense and ability to think through the problem held strong."