Using Medical Technology to Prolong Life: Ethical Questions and Issues Raised by the Karen Ann Quilan and Terri Schiavo Cases

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The innovations in medical technology have provided medical professionals with an extraordinary ability to prevent diseases, to support life and to increase life expectancy. Technology has not only helped individuals to overcome death but also has been effective in prolonging a patient’s life. Medical technologies such as artificial kidneys, hearing aids, insulin pumps, joint implants, and in home health monitoring systems have become extremely successful. We can now maintain vital signs of patients with critical illnesses for extensive periods of time. This raises serious ethical questions concerning the quality of life of these patients and pushes forward the need to reevaluate the definitions of life and death.

In recent years, there have been efforts in the United States and across the globe to develop guidelines for patient care and medical ethics associated with the use of medical technologies. The World Medical Association developed the Geneva Convention Code of Medical Ethics for medical professionals using technologies for diagnosis and treatment. Similarly, in 1999, the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association rewrote the Principles of Medical Ethics to take into account the recent advances in medical technology.

Let’s now briefly consider two controversial cases that raise several ethical issues in using medical technology to prolong human life.

Karen Ann Quilan was 21 years old when she went into a persistent vegetative coma after ingesting alcohol with prescription tranquilizers at a party. She had serious brain damages but her heart and lung were still functioning and could be maintained by using machines. Thus, her brain was completely dead yet her body was not. After a long legal battle, Quilan’s family finally was allowed to remove her from the life support that kept her alive. She surprisingly lived in a coma for several more years by being fed through a tube.

More recently, we had the case of Terri Schiavo. In 1990, Terri Schiavo went into a comma following a cardiac arrest . After 8 years, Schiavo’s husband wanted to remove the feeding tube so she could die. However, Schiavo’s parents and sister wanted to keep her body alive with the feeding tube and hoped that one day she could recover. In 2001, the court ordered to remove the feeding tube, but the parents won a temporary legal injunction to restore the tube. The result is a long legal and political battle that lasted almost 5 years. Terri Schiavo was finally allowed to die in 2005.