A year ago yesterday the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the respirator thought to be keeping alive a comatose 22-year-old woman could be turned off.
The respirator was removed, but Karen Ann Quinlan, whose name has become a symbol for those kept alive with modern medical technology, still lives.
Despite the prediction of her attending physicians, who fiercely fought efforts to remove the machine, the young woman who became comatose two years ago next month, was able to breathe without mechanical help.
She still lies in a second-floor room of the Morrisview Nursing Home, in Morris County, N.J., fed through tubes, constantly given antibiotics to fight life-threatening infections, a 60-pound living skeleton. But she is "alive".
While the removal of the respirator did not end the ordeal for Joseph and Julia Quinlan, who still visit their daughter daily, it appears to have had a profound effect upon public opinion and the law regarding the care of the terminally ill.
In 1975, prior to the time when Joseph Quinlan went to the New Jersey Superior Court to ask that his daughter's respirator be disconnected, socalled "right to die" legislation was introduced in only five states.
The following spring, after the lower court's denial of Quinlan's request and during the state Supreme Court's consideration of it, 17 such bills were introduced. All were defeated.
But this year 50 bills were introduced in 38 states. Two have been signed into law - in California and Idaho - and in two states the bills await the governor's signatures to become law.
The California and Idaho laws make legally binding what are known as "living wills," documents an individual fills out while in good health instructing that should he or she become hopelessly ill, with no chance of recovery, extraordinary means not be used to prolong the dying process.
The law provide strict guidelines as to the circumstances under which the wills can be acted upon and are intended to eliminate the possibility of relatives or doctors using the documents to do away with patients for financial or other gains.
The Quinlan case "has had a strong effect upon brining this out in the open," said Alice Mehling, executive director of the Society for the Right to Die, the legislative arm of the Euthanasia Educational council.
However, said Mehling, "Without exception these bills are introduced by legislators who have had a similar experience." They have had a friend or relative kept alive when there was no hope for recovery.
Because of the Quinlan case, she said, "People have learned this is more common than they thought. It has defintely had an influence. Many legislators have referred to the Quinlan case in presenting or discussing their bills."
From 1969 through September, 1975, when the Quinlan case first became news, the Euthansia Educational Council distributed 750,000 copies of its version of the living will. In the year and a half since that time the society has had 1.25 million requests for the document from persons who are apparently afraid of ending their days as Karen Quinlans.