by Norman L. Cantor
In 1976, the N.J. Supreme Court issued a remarkably insightful ruling regarding the legal status of a permanently unconscious patient. In re Quinlan served as a judicial beacon guiding development of death & dying jurisprudence. Its impact is reminiscent of the judicial role played by Brown v. Board of Education in public education.
To appreciate the wondrous nature of Quinlan, recall the setting and background of the case. In 1975, a 22 year-old woman, Karen Ann Quinlan, was lying unconscious in a N.J. hospital following 2 anoxic episodes caused by toxic ingestions. She was sustained by a mechanical respirator and a naso-gastric tube. The diagnosis was PVS (permanent vegetative state) and the prognosis was that the patient would inevitably die within a year without regaining consciousness. Ms. Quinlan’s devoted parents reluctantly concluded that their daughter would not want to be maintained in her dismal, hopeless condition. Their priest and spiritual advisor told them that Catholic doctrine would permit withdrawal of “extraordinary” medical intervention such as the respirator. But when the parents asked the attending neurologist, Dr. Morse, to withdraw Karen’s respirator, he refused. He contended that professional medical standards precluded that course. The hospital concurred. Facing this resistance, Ms. Quinlan’s father turned to the N.J. chancery court seeking formal appointment as his daughter’s guardian with explicit authorization to direct withdrawal of the respirator.
A variety of interested parties responded to Mr. Quinlan’s chancery petition and they all opposed it. The county prosecutor asserted that pulling the respirator plug would constitute homicide and the state attorney general concurred. The attending physicians and the hospital contended that pulling the plug would violate their professional responsibilities to the patient. And a special guardian ad litem appointed to represent Karen Ann Quinlan insisted that it was in the helpless patient’s best interests to have her life prolonged. The lower court denied the father’s petition and Mr. Quinlan appealed.
On appeal, the N.J. Supreme Court in 1976 faced the unenviable task of shaping legal policy toward medical conduct likely to precipitate the death of a helpless patient. This was largely uncharted legal territory with no definitive precedents in state or federal courts. Common sense said that it can’t be a legal mandate to keep pumping fluids and gases into moribund patients until the last possible breath. Yet a chorus of naysayers proclaimed that pulling the respirator plug on Ms. Quinlan would be unlawful homicide, or a breach of professional medical responsibility to preserve patients’ lives, or a violation of a guardian’s fiduciary obligation to act in a ward’s best interests. And even if some circumstances might warrant removal of life-preserving medical interventions, hard questions existed about who is entitled to be the decision maker and what test or criteria govern such surrogate decision making.