The Legacy of Nancy Cruzan

29 September 2004


“Few people are more central to changing the shape of how we die in America than Bill Colby, the attorney [who] brought the case of Nancy Cruzan to national attention.”

    Marilyn Webb, author of The Good Death        

In 1983, 25-year old Nancy Cruzan careened off the road, flipped over and was thrown from her car into a ditch. Nancy hadn’t breathed for at least 15 minutes before paramedics found and revived her—a triumph of modern medicine launching her family’s seven-year crusade to free Nancy from a persistent vegetative state.

After her accident, they worked tirelessly to help bring her back to consciousness, without success. After five years, the family finally accepted that Nancy's condition would never improve. Already worn out from losing the fight to bring Nancy back to life, the Cruzans began a painful, and very public, legal battle to have the state hospital remove her feeding tube and let her die.

Bill Colby was the Cruzan family’s lawyer, who guided them through a protracted legal journey leading, ultimately, to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the process, Colby witnessed the emotional toll the entire experience exacted upon the Cruzan family.

After several suits between the Cruzan family and the state's attorney general in the Missouri court system, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear its first right-to-die case, that of Nancy Cruzan. In a 5-4 decision, the Cruzans lost. Buried in hundreds of pages of the Supreme Court’s opinion, however, Colby found the key that would allow them to retry the case back in Missouri-- and win. 

Nancy Cruzan's  grave marker, adapted from a political cartoon someone sent the Cruzans, has three dates etched on it:

Born July 20, 1957 /  Departed January 11, 1983
At Peace December 26, 1990

The case of Nancy Cruzan personalizes the many ethical and medical gray areas surrounding the point (if one exists) when quality of life is so diminished it isn’t worth living: a threshold the public has yet to define. Mr. Colby's discussions of the case forces questions about the definition and moral validity of euthanasia and raises many unanswered questions that have emerged in the wake of medical advances over the value of life.

Much has changed in the nearly 14 years since Nancy's death. The federal government passed a law requiring all persons entering a hospital in the United States be told about living wills. Most states have laws governing advance directives, durable powers of attorney and health care proxies. On September 23, 2004, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the so-called "Terri's Law", which has kept Terri Schiavo in a persistent vegetative state for 14 years, despite her husband's desire to have her feeding tubes removed. Click here to read CNN's report.  

The 22 September Medical Center Hour examines "The Legacy of Nancy Cruzan" with special guest speaker, Bill Colby .

John D. Arras , Ph.D., of the Department of Philosophy, and Paul Lombardo , J.D., Ph.D., Center for Biomedical Ethics at UVA, also discuss the legacy of Nancy Cruzan.

The links below provide information on Nancy Cruzan, the legal issues surrounding her, and its legacy:

PBS's "Frontline" devoted an episode to the case, and their site contains a brief description, as well as a link to a transcript of the entire broadcast: 

The American Medical Association's web site has an article about the legacy of Nancy Cruzan:

Bill Colby's web site,, provides information about his book detailing the case of Nancy Cruzan, as well as a link to the Cruzan family foundation.