Right to Die: Medical, Legal & Moral Issues

September 28, 1990

Report Outline
Special Focus


From the Karen Quinlan case of the 1970s to the Nancy Cruzan case today, Americans have been forced by the advance of medical science and technology to struggle with the painful question of when it is right to discontinue life-sustaining medical treatment and let someone die. Now, as they refine the answer to that question, physicians, ethicists and lawyers are confronting another one: Is there a difference between allowing a terminally ill patient to die and actively helping him to do so?

Go to top


At about 1 a.m. on Jan. 11, 1983, a Missouri state trooper found 25-year-old Nancy Beth Cruzan lying face down on the ground near her overturned car. The trooper thought she was dead. But the paramedics, who arrived on the scene nine minutes later, began cardiopulmonary resuscitation anyway and, following instructions from a hospital emergency room physician, instituted advanced life-support measures. They succeeded in restoring her breathing and heartbeat, but her brain had been without oxygen for 12–14 minutes. The young woman stayed in a coma for three weeks, then moved into a state of unconsciousness that has lasted for more than seven years.

Before her accident, Nancy Cruzan several times had said that if she were faced with life as a “vegetable,” she would not want to live. And after it became clear that her condition was not likely to improve, her anguished parents decided that she would prefer to be allowed to die. In 1987, they asked that the hospital remove the tube by which she was being given nutrition and water. The hospital refused, and the Cruzans went to court. A trial judge agreed to their request, but the Missouri Supreme Court overruled him, saying there was no “clear and convincing” evidence that Nancy Cruzan would wish to have that done. The Cruzans appealed, and earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court—in its first ruling in a “right-to-die” case (Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health)—upheld the Missouri Supreme Court's decision.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Right to Die
May 13, 2005  Right to Die
Sep. 05, 1997  Caring for the Dying
May 05, 1995  Assisted Suicide Controversy
Feb. 21, 1992  Assisted Suicide
Sep. 28, 1990  Right to Die: Medical, Legal & Moral Issues
Feb. 24, 1984  Medical Ethics in Life and Death
Jun. 21, 1972  Medical Ethics
Medical Profession and Personnel
Right to Die