The tragedy of the Karen Ann Quinlan case is well known, but the strange paradox of the case is not. Although Paul Armstrong, the attorney for the Quinlans, asserted dramatically the helplessness of Karen Ann Quinlan in the face of her hospital’s refusal to disconnect her respirator, he also—and this seems like a contradiction—won the case by suggesting that removing respirators was already a common medical practice.
If indeed, removing respirators was already a common practice, why were the Quinlans having such difficulty? Moreover, if removing respirators was a common practice, why was the public so interested in the case?
If, however, disconnecting respirators was not a common practice, why was everyone so ready to accept the argument that it was?
The Karen Ann Quinlan case was not just a decision about Karen Ann’s respirator. It was a public relations triumph for the champions of managed dying. By studying the events and the ideas surrounding this case, which took place in the social turmoil and confusion of the 1970s, we can understand more about the profound transformations taking place in American attitudes toward medical care.
On April 15, 1975, Karen Ann Quinlan was hospitalized in an unconscious state. Her friends had called the police because she was having difficulty breathing. No definite reason for her collapse was ever established. She and her friends had been drinking, but her symptoms seemed to be excessive for the amount that they thought she had consumed. Later tests showed traces of aspirin,