Karen Ann Quinlan and the Right to Die

In re Quinlan, 355 A.2d 647 (N.J. 1976)

After returning from a party, Karen Ann Quinlan became unconscious and stopped breathing. Medical intervention saved her life, but a lack of oxygen left her in a persistent vegetative state. After several months with no change in her condition, Karen’s parents wanted their daughter’s ventilator removed.

The hospital, together with the Quinlans, commenced a legal battle against the Morris County prosecutor over whether the withdrawal of life support constituted homicide. On March 31, 1976, in a landmark decision, the New Jersey State Supreme Court ruled 7-0 that privacy rights assured a person’s prerogative to forgo life-sustaining medical treatment, and that—in this case—a parent could make the decision for Karen. When taken off the ventilator, Karen shocked many by continuing to breathe on her own. She lived in a coma for nine more years, succumbing to pneumonia on June 11, 1985.

The Quinlans’ case shed light on the notoriously difficult question of what should and should not be considered a life. The right-to-die movement has since worked to more clearly define the borders between life and death, with the courts attempting to honor the wish to preserve human dignity while still fulfilling their mandate to prevent murder.