What has Karen Quinlan taught us?
I was surprised by Lorell’s identifying June 11, 2009 as the 24th anniversary of Karen Quinlan’s death, nearly 10 years after being weaned from the respirator.
That news reminded me of being young—and still teaching—and how I used the “Matter of Quinlan. Supreme Court of New Jersey 1976” when I taught ethics. I wanted the students to see the best arguments on issues, whether pro or con—and this case was the best example of legal reasoning, supported by good philosophical distinctions, that I could find for end-of-life issues.
I hope the students all memorized this “holding”: “The State’s interest to maintain life weaken, and a patient’s right of privacy grows, as the degree of bodily invasion increases and as prognosis dims.” I think that’s brilliant—and I hope I said it often enough that it drilled a hole in their heads.
Using the ordinary/extraordinary means distinction and the distinction between direct killing and allowing to die, the Supreme Court Justices declared 7-0 “. . .upon the concurrence of the guardian and family of Karen, should the responsible attending physicians conclude that there is no reasonable possibility of Karen’s ever emerging from her present comatose condition to a cognitive, sapient state and that the life-support apparatus now being administered to Karen should be discontinued, they shall consult with the hospital ‘Ethics Committee’. . . .”
I wonder how long it took the hospital to get an “Ethics Committee” up and running!!
So many years later—so many trips to the courtroom. But I hope that responsible advance care planning has eliminated many other such trips.