It took less than 20 minutes for Nancy Cruzan to suffer irreversible brain damage in a 1983 car accident on a lonely, icy Missouri road. Last week, eight years after she lapsed into a coma, Nancy Cruzan died peacefully.
Her deliverance came after a nightmarish three-year legal battle by her parents to allow her to die with dignity. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled last June that medical treatment and food can be withdrawn from a patient, even an incompetent one, if there is "clear and convincing evidence" that doing so conforms with the patient's wishes. Following testimony from co-workers that Nancy would not have wanted to live "like a vegetable," a probate judge ruled that her hospital feeding tube could be removed. She lived 12 more days.
Anti-euthanasia and antiabortion groups denounced the decision as unethical and criminal. But right-to-die advocates praised the Cruzans for boldly breaking legal barriers. The case focused national attention on living wills and other documents that try to spell out in advance a patient's wishes. It also prompted Congress to pass a law requiring Medicare- and Medicaid-funded institutions to inform patients of their right-to-die options. "Nancy," said her parents following her death, "we will always love you and hold your memory in our hearts."