This article explores the cultural politics of medicine and the law through a historical examination of the case of Karen Ann Quinlan. In viewing the Quinlan case as, in part, an unanticipated consequence of the 1968 redefinition of death, this article implicates the importance of historical perspective and methodology in examining the nuances of the cultural negotiation of professional power. Using popular, legal, medical, and bioethics sources in historical context, it reveals how the legal process can nurture misconceptions about medical practice and the role of technology. It also sheds light on how the search for legal protection can motivate medical behavior. In so doing, it challenges the view that Quinlan was an important gain for patients’ rights. Instead it views Quinlan’s chief legacy as its offer to the medical profession of freedom from criminal prosecution when removing life support from patients in a chronically vegetative state.

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