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The Karen Ann Quinlan Case of the Right to Die

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Law
Wordcount: 1272 words Published: 18th May 2020

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In the United States, the Karen Ann Quinlan case remains to be one of the most popular figures with respect to the right to die controversy. The issue, in this case, arose after the family sought to acquire a court order that would allow the patient to die peacefully by withdrawing life support. According to Fine (2005), Quinlan had been on life support for several months, and the doctors had expressed that there was no hope that she would recover from the coma. Thus, the request was accompanied by intense opposition from the medical faculty. Euthanasia refers to the actions taken to terminate one’s life to stop them from suffering, and the decision to die is mainly taken by a responsible person such as parent or doctor. Physicians have an inherent responsibility to protect the life of their patients. In the case of Quinlan who was unconscious which limited the application of patient autonomy and would not, therefore, indicate her wish to die and thus withdrawing life support machines as requested by her parents would be perceived as murder. Patient autonomy is a patient’s right to make decisions with regard to their medical care without being influenced by healthcare providers. Quinlan was in a coma, and thus, the concept was deemed as useful in deciding about whether to end her life.

Facts and Court Holding in the Quinlan Case

After attending a birthday party, Quinlan fell into a coma she had overdosed on alcohol and tranquilizers. The event took place in April of 1975, and in November the same year, her parents in a landmark suit requested that the respirator should be withdrawn to allow Quinlan to die with dignity and grace since there was no anticipation that she would actually recover (Beauchamp, 2006). The suit was, therefore, placed after medics who were taking care of her refused the private request by her parents to let her die.

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The request was denied by a Superior court judge in New Jersey, but the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court following an appeal. The court held that with respect to the right of privacy Quinlan’s need for disconnecting her from the life support systems outweighed the interest of the state in protecting her life since the medical professionals did not see any feasible potential of her recovery (Lang & Seltzer, 2015). Since she was in a coma from the moment, she arrived in the hospital, and there was no living will to establish her medical decisions. A living will entail a directive to medical professional which is an advanced directive document that allows individuals to state their wishes of ending life in the case that they can no longer communicate about their preferred medical condition. An advanced directive is needed to indicate the medical decision of a patient in case he or she can no longer make a conscious decision about medical care or ending life (Tate, 2016). The will does not take effect after death has occurred.

Due to the lack of a living will for the case of Quinlan, as she was still in a coma, the court, therefore, decided that it is her father and not medical professions and the court that had the power of acting on her behalf to decide whether to withdraw the life support. The court also indicated that no person would be held liable for euthanasia through disconnecting her from life support since her death would not be treated as a murder but rather termination from existing natural reasons. A power of attorney was used in making this decision. It refers to a legal paper that gives one individual the authority to act on behalf of another person (Lang & Seltzer, 2015). Quinlan’s father, who was her guardian was given the authority to act for her daughter, who was not in a condition to make any decision. It was therefore assumed that his decision would reflect those of his daughter given that he wished that her daughter would be relieved from suffering and pain since her terminal illness would eventually take her life.

Right to die as the basis of the ruling in the case is a legal concept that is grounded on the idea that humans are entitled to decide on ending their lives or pursue voluntary euthanasia (Lang & Seltzer, 2015). The ownership of this right is normally based on the opinion that an individual with a terminal disease or one that lacks the desire to continue living should be permitted to end this or her life through assisted suicide or withdrawal of treatment that is focused on prolonging life. In this case, Quinlan was suffering from a terminal illness and withdrawing life support system would best serve in emphasizing her right to die, which would end her sufferings.

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Quinlan was kept under life support to prolong her life since the medical profession believed that they had a right to protecting her life. Her brain was dead from the intensity of the condition, and they had, therefore, expressed their concerns that would not recover from the terminal illness. The case resulted in controversial legal and ethical debates with regard to the extent in which medical science should be used to protect the life of a person that has been classified as irreversibly lost (Beauchamp, 2006). The main ethical issue was whether it would be appropriate to end her life or just allow her to die naturally since the illness was termed as terminal, and there was no hope of retrieving her. On the other hand, her parents wished that she should be relieved from suffering as the doctors had declared her as a loss since no form of medical assistance would help her in recovering. Since doctors have an obligation to preserve life, the lack of advanced directive wishing on euthanasia meant that withdrawing the life support machines would be considered as murder and a violation of the physician code. On the other hand, the main legal issue revolved on whether in the absence of any living will or advanced directives that Quinlan was entitled to the right to die. Ethically speaking all the involved parties acted with the guidance of the best interest for the patient.


In summing up, Quinlan’s case is characterized by both ethical and legal issues. The right to die and right to privacy indicates that as a terminally ailing patient, she is entitled to be disconnected from the life support machines to end her suffering and ensure that she dies a dignified life. The directive was applicable because the physicians had already indicated that there lacks any potential proof to believe that she would recover. Her parent’s request was ethically reasonable even though legal justification was required to determine whether disconnecting life support was ethical and legally justified.


  • Beauchamp, T. L. (2006). The right to die as the triumph of autonomy. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 31(6), 643-654.
  • Fine R. L. (2005). From Quinlan to Schiavo: medical, ethical, and legal issues in severe brain injury. Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center), 18(4), 303–310. doi:10.1080/08998280.2005.11928086
  • Lang, J. A., & Seltzer, M. M. (2015). Karen Ann Quinlan: Dying in the Age of Eternal Life; and Death Dying and the Biological Revolution: Our Last Quest for Responsibility. DePaul Law Review, 26(4), 891.
  • Tate, K. R. (2016). An Advance Directive: The Elective, Effective Way to be Protective of Your Rights. Mercer L. Rev., 68, 521.


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