Karen Ann Quinlan Biography

A Pioneer in the Right-to-Die Movement

Portrait of Karen Ann Quinlan
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Karen Ann Quinlan became the first legal case in what would later be known as the "right-to-die movement." Her case highlighted the widening chasm between medical technology and what is considered a "good death." For the first time, many Americans found themselves thinking about important decisions that need to be made at the end of life.

Karen became the symbol of abuse of technology in this technological age. She gave both fields—law and medicine—a case they could not avoid.
Julia Duane Quinlan
My Joy, My Sorrow: Karen Ann's Mother Remembers

Early Life

Karen Ann Quinlan was born March 29, 1954, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and was adopted by Joseph and Julia Quinlan and raised in Roxbury Township, N.J. She was by all reports leading a normal, healthy life. She was an average student, good at swimming and skiing and was popular with her classmates.

On April 15, 1975, a few days after moving into a new house with two roommates at the age of 21, Quinlan attended a friend's birthday party at a local bar where she reportedly had a few drinks in addition to Valium. After feeling faint, she was taken home and put to bed; and after fifteen minutes she was found not breathing.

Karen Ann's Brain Injury

An ambulance was called and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was attempted. Quinlan was admitted to Newton Memorial Hospital in New Jersey, where she was given oxygen and put on a ventilator. In the emergency room, her pupils did not react, she did not respond to deep painful stimuli and was unable to breathe on her own, all indicators of extreme hypoxic brain injury.

It was determined after several days that Karen Ann was in an irreversible coma, also known as a persistent vegetative state (PSV). She was transferred to St. Clare's Hospital for long-term care.

After receiving the news that Karen Ann's condition was irreversible, the family met to discuss the next step.

They decided that Karen Ann would not want to be kept alive by machines and artificial methods. They reached the decision to take Karen off the ventilator and allow her to return to her "natural state."

The Quinlans received support from their priest and the Catholic Church, and with this support, they met with Karen's doctors and officials at St. Claire's hospital on July 31, 1975, to request the removal of the ventilator. The hospital representatives initially agreed, but then changed their minds, setting the stage for the legal battle that ensued.

The Right-to-Die Legal Battle

The Quinlan's legal battle started in a Morristown, N.J., courtroom where they asked permission to remove their daughter from the ventilator. A court-appointed guardian for Karen argued that the parents had no right to propose what amounted to euthanasia. The Quinlans lost this first round in the Superior Court. The Quinlans then took their case to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor.

Karen Ann was removed from the respirator but continued to receive artificial nutrition and hydration. She lived another nine years in a nursing home until her eventual death on June 11, 1985, from pneumonia.

Karen Ann Quinlan's Legacy

The Quinlan's legal case set precedent and established a patient's right to refuse medical care and control his or her own medical treatment. Because of Karen Ann Quinlan, changes were made in the way health care decisions are made, including the creation of ethics committees in hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices, the creation of advance directives, and the invention of health care proxies.