Karen Ann Quinlan. Karen Cruzan. Terry Schiavo.

These 3 women are associated with court cases involving the right to die. 

Right to Die Cases

In 1975, Karen Quinlan attended a party where she drank alcohol and took tranquilizer pills. Quinlan went into respiratory failure, suffered irreversible brain damage, and fell into a coma. She was 21 years old. 

Quinlan was placed on a ventilator and feeding tube. Her parents wanted the ventilator disconnected because they considered it an extraordinary means of prolonging her life that was causing her pain. The State of New Jersey disagreed, and prosecutors threatened the hospital officials with a murder charge if they disconnected Quinlan. The case eventually went to the New Jersey Supreme Court, where the parents prevailed. The Court held Quinlan’s interest in having her life-support systems disconnected exceeded the state’s interest in preserving life, and that Quinlan’s father – not her doctors or a court- held the authority to decide. Quinlan’s ventilator was removed, but the feeding tube left intact. Quinlan died nine years later on June 11, 1985.

In 1983 Karen Cruzan, age 26, was involved in a car accident that left her in an irreversible vegetative state. A month after the accident, a feeding tube was implanted in her stomach. Cruzan’s parents wanted the feeding tube removed because, they said, she should be allowed to die a dignified death as she would have wanted. The State of Missouri disagreed. The case eventually landed in the US Supreme Court, which recognized Cruzan had a right to die if there was clear and convincing evidence that she would have wanted to die rather than continue living in that state. The feeding tube was removed, and Cruzan died 2 weeks later on December 26, 1990.

In 1990 Terri Schiavo, also 26, went into cardiac arrest at her home in Florida. She had massive brain damage due to lack of oxygen and was left in a coma. Eight years later her husband petitioned to have her feeding tube removed. He was opposed by Terri’s parents. The case wound its way through state and federal courts and finally, based on a court determination that Schiavo would not have wished to continue life-prolonging measures, the feeding tube was removed. Schiavo died 2 weeks later on March 31, 2005. 

When these cases occurred, it would not have been common for a person to leave written instructions about their wishes in the event of a catastrophic medical incident. Indeed, the courts had not yet recognized a right to die or extended the right of privacy to include dying. As a result, the families’ decisions were made against a backdrop of publicity, politics, and courtroom drama.  

Medical Power of Attorney & Directive to Physicians

In response, all 50 states eventually passed laws authorizing 2 types of documents.  

The first, the Medical Power of Attorney, is used to designate an agent with the authority to make health care decisions, including the decision to disconnect life support. 

The second, the Directive to Physicians, also known as a Living Will, memorializes a person’s decision to either use or withhold the use of artificial means to prolong life in the event of a terminal illness or irreversible condition. 

These documents were not available to Quinlan, Cruzan and Schiavo.  They are available to you, your adult children, and your parents.  

The statutory forms can be found in Chapter 166, Texas Health & Safety Code or obtained through your estate planning attorney. 

Don’t procrastinate. They may be the most important documents you will ever sign. It is truly a matter of life and death. 

Virginia Hammerle is president of  Hammerle Finley Law Firm. She is an Accredited Estate Planner, has been Board Certified in Civil Trial Law for 25 years, and recognized as a Super Lawyer for the past 10 years. She blogs regularly on senior issues and the law and has a monthly newsletter. Contact at legaltalktexas@hammerle.com.