“Our ultimate goal, after all, is not a good death but a good life to the very end.”―Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
Death is a reality of life. It is a part of life. It is an inevitable reality of being human. One day, we will all die. And yet, it is a reality that many of us don’t want to think about.
This post is a biographical tribute to the life and death of my mother, Dr. Karen Joyce Warren. An ecological feminist philosopher, Karen was diagnosed with a terminal, neurodegenerative illness in 2016.
Since that time, she used philosophical arguments to promote conversation about end-of-life options for those diagnosed with terminal illnesses. She co-authored two posts with me for Psychology Today: one practical commentary on her personal experiences confronting death and a second advocating for end-of-life options.
My mother’s death leaves me feeling profound sadness mixed with relief. Although her illness made the last few years of her life physically and emotionally challenging, the last couple of months were particularly painful to witness because I knew that she did not want to live in such a pained and impaired physical state.
In Minnesota—as in many states in the U.S.— medical aid in dying for terminally ill patients is not yet legal. A bill (HF 2152), otherwise known as the End of Life Options Act, is still being considered by the Minnesota State Legislature. Organizations like Compassion & Choices and Death with Dignity continue to lobby for the rights of individuals with terminal illnesses to end their lives on their own terms.
I hope my mother’s work promotes critical thinking about medical ethics and human autonomy such that others in her position will have more power to decide how and when they die. I will miss her tremendously.
Karen was born on Long Island, N.Y., and raised by her parents “Jooj” and Marge Warren in Ridgefield, Conn.. She is the third of four siblings.
In her youth, Karen loved activities with her Girl Scouts troop, playing sports and caring for her many pets. She received her B.A. from the University of Minnesota (1970) and her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (1978).
Karen called herself a “public philosopher”—one who believes that philosophical thinking is appropriate for all age groups, used in all cultural contexts, and relevant to both theoretical and applied issues. In that vein, she presented her work traveling around the world to diverse audiences, giving Keynote Lectures to academic professional organizations and lay audiences alike—from the The Wilderness Society, to school districts, to prison systems.
Karen’s expertise was in the areas of environmental ethics, critical thinking and feminist philosophy. She published and co-authored eight books, including her most well-known book Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What It Is and Why It Matters (2000) and the anthology An Unconventional History of Western Philosophy: Conversations Between Men and Women Philosophers, which was lauded as the first book to include female philosophers alongside their contemporary male counterparts.
She also wrote over 40 articles and won numerous professional awards, including the INTERCOME Gold Hugo Award (1994) for a film demonstrating how to teach critical thinking to first-to-fourth grade children; the American Education Studies Association Critic’s Choice Award (1996) for her book Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature; a Teaching Excellence Honor from the American Philosophical Association (1997); and, Educator of the Year Award from Macalester College (2000).
Karen spent the majority of her career as a professor in the philosophy department at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.
In addition, she was the ecofeminist-scholar-in-residence at Murdoch University in Australia (1995); an Oxford University round table scholar (2003); and the Women’s Chair in Humanistic Studies at Marquette University (2004). Her biography was featured in the book, Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975.
In 2016, Karen was diagnosed with multiple systems atrophy (MSA). Since that time, she worked diligently to promote end of life options for individuals with terminal illnesses. Using ethics as a philosophical framework, she argued that humans should have the right to choose when it is time to die when faced with an untreatable fatal illness. Karen articulated her arguments in public forums, including speaking in front of the Minnesota State Senate and writing articles for Compassion & Choices, as well as Psychology Today.
Karen loved gardening, painting, being in nature and attending Minnesota Vikings games (she was a true football fan!). She loved animals—particularly her most recent cats Hypatia and Colfax. She is survived by a daughter (Cortney), son-in-law (Cal), two grandchildren (Isabella and Kane), two sisters (Janice and Barbara), a brother (Roger) and their respective families.
There will be no formal funeral services for Karen. Instead, her family invites you to celebrate her life as you see fit. As was her way, Karen generously donated her body to the University of Minnesota Anatomy Bequest Program for medical education and research. She was also a supporter of the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Research and their work to understand Parkinson’s disease and MSA.
Karen fought many important battles in her life, often centered around injustice and giving voice to those who did not have one. She will be missed tremendously by family, friends, colleagues and students. She was dearly loved.