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

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. 

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

  • Her Parents Wanted To Disconnect Her Respirator For Religious Reasons
    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.

  • She Died At Age 31 And Weighed Only 65 Pounds

    After a decade of being off her ventilator and surviving via feeding tube, Quinlan passed away from pneumonia. She weighed 65 pounds when she died; she weighed 115 pounds before entering the hospital and fell to 70 pounds after only a few months into her coma. 

    At that point, doctors said her brain damage was irreversible, and the Quinlans were told their daughter had no hope of waking up, let alone living a normal life. When they decided to let Quinlan go off the respirator, they had no idea they were setting off a series of legal and ethical battles. 

  • Her Case Started A National Conversation About The Right To Die
    Photo: Ted Eytan / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    Her Case Started A National Conversation About The Right To Die

    The "Right to Die" wasn't a very public issue before Karen Ann Quinlan; hers was the first case to grapple with quality of life, likelihood of recovery, and the state's responsibility (or lack thereof) in preserving a person's wishes regarding health and life. Though there were many legal arguments surrounding Karen's defense, the court eventually based its decision on an individual's right to privacy, stating "no compelling interest of the state could compel Karen to endure the unendurable."

    Karen's parents were finally allowed to remove her respirator. They maintained, however, they were not advocating euthanasia for their daughter; they merely wanted natural causes to dictate her life and death.