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The Karen Ann Quinlan Case Legal Aspects of Healthcare Research Paper

Related Topics: Homicide Suffering Hospital Death

Pages:6 (1922 words)




Document Type:Research Paper


Facts and Court Holding

Karen Ann Quinlan attracted national attention following her slipping into a comma in 1975. In essence, the Quinlan case remains a key reference point in discussions revolving around the right to die. According to Drane (1994) Ms. Quinlan fell into a comma on the night of April 15, 1975 following her an evening birthday party of one of her friends. It was reported that during the party, Quinlan took a cocktail of alcoholic beverages. In additional to alcohol, it was also reported that she took a tranquilizer (Valium to be specific) (Drane, 1994). She promptly slid into a comma. Soon, her friends realized she was not breathing and called an ambulance which rushed her to Newton Memorial Hospital. Efforts to resuscitate Quinlan were unsuccessful and after it became apparent that her comma was irreversible, she was transferred to another medical facility, i.e. St. Clare’s in Danville.

After a while, Quinlan was declared to be in a persistent vegetative state. The condition she was in could not be reversed. It was after she was to be declared to be in a persistent vegetative state that her parents sought to intervene and end what they saw as her unnecessary suffering. According to Quinlan’s patients, chances of their daughter returning from the state she was in were slim at best. Thus, to end her suffering, the said parents made a private request to doctors at St. Claire’s in Danville that the machines being used to sustain Quinlan be switched off (Rosenthal, 2018). Quinlan’s parents proceeded to seek the intervention of the court following the refusal by doctors at the healthcare facility to heed to their request. It is this move that set the stage for what came to be an intense national debate on the question of life and death, and the right to die.

On September 1985, Quinlan parents filed a suit seeking termination of further attempts to prolong the life of their daughter using extraordinary means. However, a month since the suit’s filing, this particular request was denied by a Superior Court judge in Morristown, New Jersey (Rosenthal, 2018). According to Rosenthal (2018), the judge in this case argued that the decision to remove Quinlan from the ventilator was not supported by her doctors. Here, the judge made a finding that the decision at hand was more medical than judicial. As Rosenthal (2018) further points out, it was also found that any move to disconnect the respirator would in this particular case be in contravention of the homicide statuses of New Jersey State.

The loss of the petition did not deter Quinlan’s parents from their resolve to end what in their opinion was the unnecessary suffering of their daughter. They, thus, moved to the New Jersey Supreme Court. In what came to be seen as a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court granted the wish of Quinlan’s parents – arguing, in part, that Quinlan ought not to endure that which appeared unendurable. The court, to be more specific, “held a new interpretation of the right of privacy, and that Miss Quinlan’s interest in having her life-support systems disconnected exceeded the state’s interest in preserving life, so long as medical authorities saw ”no reasonable possibility” that she would recover” (Karen Ann Quinlan Hospice, 2019). Further, according to Karen Ann Quinlan Hospice (2019), the court also made a finding that if Quinlan’s death did result from the disconnection of the respirator, then her death would be as a consequence of existing natural consequences. This is to say that under such circumstances, the course of action adopted by the doctors would not be homicide and,…

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…happens to be in a permanent vegetative state, a physician or an ethical committee could be the designated decision maker. This could be the case pending the appointment of a guardian. As a matter of fact, the AMA Code of Medical Ethics points out that in situations that involve patients with no surrogate and are incapable of making decisions, the ethics committee ought to be consulted by physicians on key decisions (Singer, 2013). In the case of Quinlan, it was possible for the court to identify a guardian, i.e. her dad. In such a case, the guardian is granted legal authority in as far as all decisions appertaining to the incapacitated person are concerned. In those instances whereby the patient is in permanent vegetative state, it is the responsibility of the guardian to make decisions that are in the best interests of the patient.

This brings us to the question on what the best interests of a patient are in a situation such as that of Quinlan. People ought to be granted the benefit of dying with dignity. When a patient sinks to a state of irreversible suffering, and there are no medical interventions likely to improve their wellbeing, I am of the opinion that the best course of action would be to end the suffering of such a patient. This would be in line with advancing the right of a patient to die with dignity. Further, it advances the assertion that as human beings, we have an inalienable right to live with dignity. Allowing the prolonged suffering of an individual goes against this standard. In the final analysis, it should be noted that from the perspective of justice, “US case law has shown that successful petitions for termination have been made after a diagnosis of a persistent vegetative state” (Singer, 2013, p. 113).…

Sample Source(s) Used


Drane, J.F. (1994). Clinical Bioethics: Theory and Practice in Medical Ethical Decision-making. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.

Holland, S., Kitzinger, C. & Kitzinger, J. (2014). Death, treatment decisions and the permanent vegetative state: evidence from families and experts. Med Health Care Philos., 17(3), 413-423.

Karen Ann Quinlan Hospice (2019). The Story of Karen Ann Quinlan Made Headlines! Retrieved from

Mizzoni, J. (2011). Ethics: The Basics. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Rosenthal, M.S. (2018). Clinical Ethics on Film: A Guide for Medical Educators. New York, NY: Springer.

Singer, P. (2013). A Companion to Ethics. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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