Karen Ann Quinlan and the Right to Die

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Karen Ann Quinlan andthe Right to Die

SSCI 315, Spring 2017

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Karen Ann Quinlan was born on March 29, 1954, and died on June 11,1985, aged 31 years. Her death was as a result of respiratory failurecaused by acute pneumonia that she had contracted several monthsbefore her demise. She was an adopted child to Joseph and JuliaQuinlan. Karen suffered an injury to her brain when she lapsed intoa comma following intoxication from alcohol and tranquilizers. OnSeptember 12, 1975, in a landmark lawsuit, the Quinlan’s requestedthat the court forces the doctors offering care to Karen todisconnect the respirator that was helping her breath. The family`sargument was that there was no hope that she would recover. Thefamily’s request was rejected by Judge Muir of the New JerseySuperior Court. On appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court held thatMiss Quinlan’s interest of having her life supporting systemdisconnected exceeded that of the state’s provided medical doctorscould not see any reasonable possibility of her recovering. Thispaper will argue that any efforts to extend Miss Karen Quinlan`s lifedespite her condition violated her right to religion andself-determination and jeopardized her sense of self-worth andindependence.

Firstly, Miss Quinlan’s right to self-determination and well-beingwas being violated when her life was extended unnecessarily.Self-determination refers to a person`s ability to make importantdecisions regarding his/her life that matches with his/herunderstanding of a good life(Weber, 2012). According to KarenAnn Quinlan Hospice (2017), when Miss Quinlan was alive, shehad suggested that it would be better for her to be euthanized if sheever became terminally ill. Besides,Karen Ann Quinlan Hospice (2017) also reports that &quotwhilestill unable to respond or communicate, Karen would thrash wildly attimes and would blindly resist medications and the machines to whichshe was attached.&quot This may be taken to mean that she wassending a message that she no longer wanted to live. Besides, (2012), some advocates of physician-assisted euthanasia arguethat comments made by a healthy person influence the decisions toproceed with the withdrawal of interventions put in place to prolonghis/her life if he/she develops a terminal illness that preventshim/her from making crucial life choices (Corr &amp Corr, 2012).Also, according to Lin (2015),the court found that keeping Miss Quinlan alive following the loss ofher beauty, dignity, and hope of earthly life did not amount to cruelpunishment. However, all the doctors that had assessed her agreedthat she had lost her cerebral and cognitive functioning followingthe irreversible brain damage that she sustained when she lapsed intoa coma after she was intoxicated with alcohol and tranquilizers.As such, even if she ever recovered from the coma her condition couldnot have allowed her to make crucial personal decisions. This meansthat her parents were right in arguing that death was the bettersolution for her.

Additionally, keeping Miss Quinlan alive despite her deterioratingstate was violating her freedom of religion. According to Lim (2015),Karen`s case did not raise any constitutional question in regard tothe government violating her right to exercise her religious beliefs.Lim (2015) argues that although the right to religious beliefs isabsolute, it is not immune from governmental restraints, particularlywhen the public interest is deemed paramount. Quinlan was raised in aChristian way since her parents were devoted Catholics. According tothe Catholic moral theology, no extraordinary means should be appliedto lengthen a person’s life even if this would hasten naturaldeath. According to Corr &amp Corr(2012),&nbspon March22, 2004, Pope John Paul II delivered a speech on the issue oflife-sustaining treatments and the vegetative state. The Pope saidthat the only consideration when deciding whether the intervention isextraordinary or morally ordinary is the effect on the patient.Although Karen never felt any pain, her condition had devastatingconsequences on her body as evidenced by her plummeting body weight.


Miss Quinlan’s condition had severe psychological effects to herfamily. For instance, Karen’s father visited her every morningbefore reporting at his workstation at a pharmaceutical company(Karen Ann Quinlan Hospice, 2017).On the other hand, her mother who worked as a secretary of aChurch visited her two to three times a week. As such, allowing MissQuinlan to die would have alleviated the suffering her family wasfacing. Besides, Miss Quinlan remained in a coma for about ten yearsbefore her death. During the entire time, all members of her familywere going through psychological torture seeing their loved one in ahelpless state (Hetternshausen,2014).

Additionally, certain diseases reduce a patient`s functionalcapacities, and this jeopardizes his/her sense of self-worth andindependence. In Karen’s case, only the parts of her brainsupporting the breathing and cardiac functions were functioning(Karen Ann Quinlan Hospice, 2017). Besides, a nasogastric tubewas used to feed her for the entire period she was in a coma. Also,when she was being admitted, Miss Karen weighed 115 pounds. However,she weighed only 65 pounds at the time of her death. Besides, herfamily had been notified five days before her demise that death wasimminent. Consequently, the family requested that no extraordinarymeasures should be taken to try to keep her alive resulting inpassive euthanasia. Hetternshausen(2014) reports about the results of a longitudinal studyconducted by Pearlman and colleagues in 2005 in which theyinterviewed 60 participants who were either patients or familymembers to a person suffering from a terminal illness. Pearlman andhis colleagues found that the terminally ill patients were concernedabout their loss of independence if they miraculously recovered(Hetternshausen, 2014). Mainly, the majority of the terminallyill patient who responded to the interviews said that they wishedthey could end their life before they lose control of their sense ofself. In Miss Quinlan’s case, even if the use of artificialnutrition was helping to prolong her life, the intervention was noteffective in the long term as she was getting weaker every day.

In conclusion, Karen Ann Quinlan suffered a brain damage in 1975after alcohol and tranquilizer intoxication. She lapsed into a comawhich lasted for about ten years. During the entire period, only thepart of her brain supporting breathing was active. This paper hasdemonstrated that Miss Quinlan did not deserve to have her lifeunnecessarily prolonged for ten years. First, her condition hadsevere psychological effects on her family, especially because herparent`s jobs were affected since they had to visit her in thehospital on a regular basis. Besides, even if she miraculouslyrecovered from the coma, her sense of self-worth and independence wasalready highly compromised since she suffered an irreversible braindamage. Lastly, prolonging her life violated her right toself-determination since she had made clear when she was alive thatshe would not have wanted to have her life extended if she happenedto suffer from a terminal illness.


Corr, C., &amp Corr, D.(2012).&nbspDeath&amp dying, life &amp living.Nelson Education.

Hetternshausen, C. (2014).Attitudes towards end-of-life process: Gender, personality, and lifeexperience. Accessed on February 24, 2017,https://www.mckendree.edu/academics/scholars/issue15/hettenhausen.htm

Karen Ann Quinlan Hospice.(2017).The story of Karen Ann Quinlan made headlines. Accessed onFebruary 23, 2017,http://www.karenannquinlanhospice.org/about/history/

Lim, A. (2015). The right to diemovement: From Quinlan to Schiavo. Accessed on February 24, 2017.https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/8889450/Lim05.pdf?sequence=1

Weber, W. (2012). What right todie?&nbspSuicideand Life-Threatening Behavior,&nbsp18(2),181-188.