It was on June 11th, 1985 that Karen Ann Quinlan died in Morris Township, ending the long and complicated fight over the “right to die.” She had grown up in Roxbury and graduated from Morris Catholic High School. At age 21 (in 1975) she attended a party with friends after not eating for a couple of days.

A combination of booze and Valium caused her to pass out. Attempts to wake her were unsuccessful and she was taken to the hospital in a coma. Her condition did not improve, however, and she needed a ventilator to breathe.

Five months later doctors determined she was in a “persistent vegetative state.” Her parents, even though they were devout Catholics, requested that she be removed from the respirator, believing that it constituted “extraordinary means” of prolonging her life. The church allows the withholding of “extraordinary means” to prolong life; they told the LA Times that they consulted with their priest and he agreed with their decision.

Prosecutors threatened her doctors with legal action if they followed the parent’s wishes, so they kept her attached to the various machines that were keeping her alive. The Quinlans went to court to remove her from the ventilator with the state opposed, saying to do so would constitute homicide. The Quinlans lost in Superior Court, but prevailed at the New Jersey Supreme Court level. The court ruled that the Quinlans’ right to privacy (on behalf of their daughter) was sufficient to trump the state’s claims.

After their successful appeal in 1976, Karen Ann was removed from the ventilator, although they left in a feeding tube which was not considered “extraordinary means.” She did not die immediately after removal of the ventilator, though. In fact, she survived another 9 years, dying of pulmonary failure brought on by pneumonia on June 11th, 1985. Her case influenced both legal and medical practices, helping to establish a “right to die.”

Her parents opened a hospice center in Newton, the Karen Ann Quinlan Center of Hope Hospice in her memory.

The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5 talk show host Bill Doyle. Any opinions expressed are Bill Doyle's own.

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