Nancy Cruzan has finally been allowed to die. Earlier this month, a Missouri judge ruled that Cruzan, 33, would have refused the life-support system that had trapped her in a shadow land between life and death for nearly eight years. Hours after the decision, her mother, Joyce (at her daughter’s bedside, left), and her father, Joe, had Nancy’s feeding tube removed. Doctors expected her to die in a matter of days.
On Jan. 11, 1983, Cruzan was thrown from her car as it veered out of control and crashed on a country road near Carthage, Mo. In the years that followed, as she lay comatose in a Mount Vernon, Mo., hospital, her brain irreversibly damaged, she became the symbol of an agonizing paradox: Though modern medicine may lack the power to heal, it can sustain a patient in a vegetative state almost indefinitely. Now the Cruzans’ campaign to let Nancy die has made her symbolic of a new kind of freedom. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court, while upholding a state’s right to require evidence of an incompetent patient’s wishes, ruled that an individual has the right to refuse life-sustaining treatment. America listened. Over the next six months, the Society for the Right to Die. in New York City, was deluged with requests for 800,000 living-will forms. Meanwhile, the Cruzans presented new testimony about Nancy’s wishes and finally were permitted to allow her to die. “Hundreds of thousands of people can rest free, knowing that when death beckons they can meet it face-to-face with dignity.” said Joe Cruzan. “I think this is quite an accomplishment for Nancy], and I’m damn proud of her.”