NRL News

A very dark day in “Bioethics History”

by | Mar 31, 2017

By Dave Andrusko

Karen Ann Quinlan

Karen Ann Quinlan

My thanks to Kathy Ostrowski, legislative director for Kansans for Life, for sending this link along to me.

We’ve written previously about the hugely influential Medical Futility blogspot. It is run by Thaddeus Pope, who is Director, Health Law Institute, Mitchell Hamline School of Law, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Pope is a major player in the field of bioethics and a fervent believer in (as the title of the blog suggests) medical futility, as elastic (and deadly) a term as you could imagine.

There is a very brief post today under the headline “Today in Bioethics History.”

Today is Friday, March 31, the 90th day of 2017. There are 275 days left in the year.

In 1976, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Karen Ann Quinlan, a young woman in a persistent vegetative state, could be disconnected from her respirator.

In 2005, Terri [Schindler] Schiavo, 41, died at a hospice in Florida 13 days after her feeding tube was removed in a long-running right-to-die legal dispute.

Most pro-lifers are well aware of the titanic battle Terri’s family fought on behalf of their daughter and sister. In the end, she was starved and dehydrated to death. Her “right to die” was constructed out of some alleged comments Terri had made years and years before which the Schindler family denied she would ever have said.

Only those who been in the Movement for decades likely recall the case of Karen Ann Quinlan. We wrote about her last year on the 40th anniversary of the decision, but–note well–not her death. With your permission I will repost part of that story.

To quote from the Los Angeles Times’ obituary

[“Karen Ann] Quinlan lapsed into a coma on April 15, 1975, at her boyfriend’s birthday party. She had apparently consumed several gin and tonic drinks on top of what doctors said was a “therapeutic” amount of a mild tranquilizer and aspirin. The mixture was never firmly established as the cause of her condition. After doctors said that Quinlan would never return to a “cognitive state,” her parents sought court permission to disconnect her from a respirator.

In the case of In re Quinlan, the New Jersey Supreme Court in March 1976 held that the parent-guardian of Miss Quinlan could order withdrawal of the respirator that was believed to sustain Karen’s life. However, when the respirator was withdrawn on May 22, Karen unexpectedly continued to breathe on her own.

But withdrawal of nutrition and hydration was never an issue. Karen lived for another decade.

According to the 1986 Times obituary, her family, who adopted Karen at birth, “has annually celebrated a Mass at which her parents and her brother and sister prayed and sang Karen’s favorite song, ‘Amazing Grace.’”

The Quinlan case established the principle of “substituted judgment,” whereby someone else, such as a relative, is given the right to choose, purportedly on the incapacitated person’s behalf, to have treatment or food and water withdrawn. As NRL News wrote years ago, “Quinlan led the nation in applying this substituted-judgment doctrine to rejection of life-preserving medical treatment.”

Forty years later, food and water are routinely withheld, even in instances where prior to incapacity, a person had said they would want them administered. In those jurisdictions–so far very limited–where assisted suicide has been legalized, it will take only someone bringing a court case to establish the “right” of a grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease to be killed at the direction of someone deemed to have the authority to make that decision.


“Today in Bioethics History”–March 31–reminds us how far down the slippery slope we’d already come 12 years ago when Terri was starved and dehydrated to death. The anti-life forces are fighting everywhere to establish a “right” to assisted suicide which includes everyone from little children to elderly people who have persuaded themselves that their lives are “completed” and want a doctor to “assist” them to die.

We have rebuffed them many times and will continue to stand athwart the anti-life forces to say, No!”

Categories: Bioethics
Tags: bioethics