Thursday, June 11, 2015

30 years ago: The death of Karen Ann Quinlan

On June 11, 1985, Karen Ann Quinlan died of pneumonia at the age of 31. Miss Quinlan went into an irreversible coma and entered a persistent vegetative state shortly after consuming a combination of alcohol and Valium on April 15, 1975. She was taken to Newton Memorial Hospital in Morris Township, New Jersey, where she was fed through a tube and was aided in breathing by a ventilator, which were thought to be the only things keeping her alive.

Miss Quinlan's parents, who were devout Roman Catholics, wanted Karen returned to her "natural state," and petitioned to have the ventilator removed, objecting to what they saw as her life being prolonged by "extraordinary means." They thus petitioned the New Jersey Superior Court to have the ventilator removed; Newton Memorial Hospital joined the Quinlans in the action, fearing a charge of homicide if the ventilator were removed without legal justification. The Quinlans' petition was denied in November 1975, but an appeal was upheld in 1976 by the New Jersey Supreme Court. The case of Karen Ann Quinlan was widely, and incorrectly, believed to be a "right-to-die" case. In fact, Miss Quinlan met none of the criteria for death; she wasn't dead, and wasn't dying. Her parents didn't want her to die, but opposed the use of "extraordinary means" to keep her alive.

The ventilator was removed, and much to everyone's surprise, Miss Quinlan continued breathing on her own, and was fed through a tube until her death. The legal uncertainties surrounding the situation of Karen Ann Quinlan have been credited with spurring the creation of formal ethics committees in hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices.

Karen Quinlan quickly became forgotten by the public and media after the court battle was over, and her death received slight coverage, in contrast to the court case surrounding her condition, which was a major news item in 1975. You have to be of a certain age to remember the case of Karen Ann Quinlan, and those who weren't paying close attention may be surprised to find that her death occurred in 1985, not in 1975 or 1976.

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