Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Thesis


English Language and Literatures

First Advisor

Kevin Brock


Humanity has always been fascinated with death, and in recent history, has attempted to delay or suspend death through life-preserving technologies. These advancements in artificial life support, such as ventilators and feeding tubes, have contributed to tenuous and controversial situations in which the dividing line between life and death is unclear. In this thesis, I interrogate two case studies in order to analyze how the various medical, legal, and public discourses have grappled with the ambiguous space between life and death regarding patients in persistent vegetative states. The case of Karen Ann Quinlan from 1975 and the case of Terri Schiavo from the 1990s and early 2000s serve as my case studies for this examination. In particular, these two cases demonstrate how the ambiguous question of brain death, and what it means to exist between life and death, empowers a variety of groups to make significant decisions on behalf of a patient. These influential parties, including physicians, attorneys, family members, and the general public, each approach the issue of brain death from a unique perspective. My analysis is influenced by Kenneth Burke’s notion of terministic screens; in particular, I examine the various medical, legal, familial, religious, and public screens and how each one influenced the outcome of both cases. My primary focus in examining these various terministic screens is the issue of patient agency, including how the patient’s wishes are interpreted, how guardianship is determined and challenged, and how various parties assert their own influences in an attempt to control the patient’s agency and the case’s ultimate outcome.