Weird History Karen Ann Quinlan Fell Into A Vegetative State For 9 Years Before Being Allowed To Die  

Beth Elias
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The right to die has long been a controversial topic, particularly when the advocates in question are facing terminal illnesses or other non-typical states of consciousness. In the 1970s, a young woman named Karen Ann Quinlan started a national conversation about the right to die, the right to refuse life-saving treatment, the need for living wills, and euthanasia

Karen Ann Quinlan became comatose after an accidental overdose and oxygen deprivation left her almost completely brain-dead. There was no hope Karen would come out of her vegetative state. Her parents, devout Catholics, made the decision to remove her ventilator. However, their difficult request prompted multiple legal battles that eventually ended up in the New Jersey Supreme Court. Judges and courts around the country have continued to uphold their decision — that no one should be forced to be kept artificially alive. Her parents later founded and managed the Karen Ann Quinlan Center of Hope Hospice. 

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Photo: Ackerman Photo Studios/Wikimedia Commons/Fair Use

The Hospital Said They'd Be Charged With Homicide If They Unplugged Her Ventilator


After Karen Ann Quinlan's parents learned she would never come out of her vegetative coma, they asked doctors to remove her ventilator. However, the medical staff couldn't comply because they'd been warned they could be charged with murder. The most basic level of the Quinlans' court case was an attempt to get legal protection for the hospital staff so they could not be charged with murder. 

Even though the Quinlans signed documents assuring they wouldn't sue the doctors or hospital, the medical staff still refused. There was no precedent for the Quinlan family's situation, and their daughter wasn't legally brain dead.

She Entered The Coma After An Accidental Overdose


After drinking alcohol and taking tranquilizers, Karen Ann Quinlan passed out at a bar in 1975. Reportedly, she'd eaten nothing for two days prior, and the combination of alcohol and Quaaludes proved even more dangerous than usual while on her crash diet. 

When Quinlan's roommate took her home, she tried performing CPR but to no avail. Other reports say Quinlan left the bar not feeling well, went to bed, and then never woke up. Either way, according to the medical experts working on her, Quinlan's suffered irreparable brain damage quickly due to the lack of oxygen. It was too late for anyone to do anything. 

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Photo: Senior Airman Peter Reft/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Her Parents Wanted To Disconnect Her Respirator For Religious Reasons


Quinlan's parents wanted to disconnect her respirator to ascribe to their Catholic religious beliefs. The debate for many religious people revolves around the "God-given" realm of life, and what secular society regards as ordinary vs. extraordinary care. Many, including Quinlan's parents, feel a respirator is extraordinary care, and therefore not the family's or hospital's responsibility to provide it. 

Pope Pius XII spoke on this topic in 1957, saying that while food and water constitute ordinary care, a respirator or other means of resuscitating or otherwise keeping someone alive are extraordinary. So, the doctor and family are not legally (or morally) forced to keep someone alive while in a coma or other vegetative state. Quinlan's parents wanted their daughter's life to be in God's hands. By giving her "ordinary care" (i.e., food and water only), they believed they weren't going against God's plan by keeping her alive. 

She Surprised Everyone By Breathing On Her Own For Nine Years


Quinlan's respirator was removed, but not her feeding tubes. Her parents only wanted to remove the respirator because it was painful, and they said removing the feeding tubes would essentially be playing God. According to her father, Joseph Quinlan, "'Now, to remove the feeding tube, that's like saying, 'I'm going to take charge again.' We know what will happen if we remove it.'' Her mother, Julia Quinlan, added, "We never asked to have her die. We just asked to have her put back in a natural state so she could die in God's time."

Thus, Quinlan was kept off the respirator but continued breathing naturally in her hospice care for nine years until she caught pneumonia.