Karen Ann Quinlan, 1975

Medical technology has progressed to the point where a patient’s vital signs can be sustained almost indefinitely. When a patient becomes permanently comatose, unable to interact and communicate, unable to respond to touch of another human, and unable to function cognitively, is there a purpose to continue the life of the patient? In 1975, the U.S. media asked this question in the case of Karen Ann Quinlan, a 22-year-old, New Jersey woman.

Several weeks after being rushed to a hospital emergency room, attending physicians described Karen Ann Quinlan as respirator dependent and in a chronic persistent vegetative state with no real hope of recovery. She was nourished by a nasogastric tube (artificial nutrition and hydration) and her breathing required a respirator. After several months of discussion with physicians, and Roman Catholic clergy, Karen’s father asked the hospital to remove her from the respirator. They refused. Mr. Quinlan petitioned the New Jersey Courts to appoint him as Karen’s guardian and give him permission to disconnect the respirator. He was denied, being opposed by Karen’s physicians, the local prosecutor and the state attorney general. The courts rejected the argument that there is a viable legal distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means to sustain life. Finally, the New Jersey Superior Court reversed the lower court’s ruling, declaring that the patient’s constitutionally based right of privacy outweighed the State’s interest in preserving life and, since Karen was incompetent, her father was a proper guardian of that right. The court allowed the respirator to be withdrawn without any liability to the medical community nor to her father.

Karen’s physicians weaned her from the respirator, and after its removal she continued to breathe on her own. Although the New Jersey Supreme Court had given permission for all life-support to be withdrawn, Karen’s parents did not allow her to starve to death, therefore artificial nutrition and hydration continued. Karen lived another ten years until she was taken by pneumonia, demonstrating to the world the enduring will to live of the human spirit.

Withholding or Withdrawing Life-Sustaining Medical Treatment

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