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Englaro family/AP
Eluana Englaro

Eluana Englaro Case Divides Italian Government

February 09, 2009 12:04 PM
by Denis Cummings
Italy’s Parliament may pass a bill that would require doctors to resume feeding Englaro, a woman in a vegetative state who is at the center of a contentious right-to-die case.

Berlusconi Tries to Push Bill Through Parliament

The Italian Senate is holding an emergency session today to pass a bill forcing doctors to resume feeding 38-year-old Eluana Englaro, who has been in a vegetative state for 17 years. Her father, Beppino Englaro, has won a series of court decisions over the past two years that allows him to let his daughter die.

Eluana was moved Tuesday from a clinic in Lecco, where she had be treated since 1992, to La Quiete clinic in the city of Udine, which offered to let her die. Her feeding tubes were removed Friday; it should take about two weeks for her to die, but after three to five days, the “process should become irreversible,” according to the BBC.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi issued an emergency decree Friday forbidding doctors to removes the tubes. However, President Giorgio Napolitano rejected the decree, saying that it was unconstitutional because it overrode Italy’s highest court. Now Berlusconi must push the bill quickly through Parliament, where his party holds a solid majority.

Many analysts believe that Berlusconi is using the case to increase his own power by marginalizing the president and court system. “He is trying to reduce the power of the courts and the residual powers of the president, and he already has control of both houses of parliament,” professor James Walston told Deutsche Welle. “If he succeeds, it’s a form of coup. He is basically changing the Italian constitution. And he is doing this with the support of the Vatican, which is a strong ally.”

Background: The case of Eluana Englaro

The Englaro case has divided the heavily Catholic country, with a recent poll finding that 47 percent of Italians believe she should live and 47 percent believe she should be allowed to die, according to Agence France-Presse.

Eluana Englaro has been in a vegetative state since a 1992 car accident caused severe brain damage. Her father has been fighting since 1999 for the right to let her die, and in July a Milan court ruled in his favor. In November, Italy’s highest court allowed the decision to stand.

Despite the court victory, Englaro was unable to find a hospice or clinic willing to accept Eluana for over two months. The health authority of Lombardy, the region in which Eluana was treated, said that doctors would breach “professional duties and obligations” if they allowed Eluana to die and the Italian health minister warned that it would be “illegal.”

Englaro won another court victory on Jan. 26, when a Lombardy court ruled that the local government must designate a facility for Eluana to die. Following the decision, La Quiete clinic in city of Udine agreed to accept Eluana and remove her feeding tubes. She was transferred out of Lecco in early hours of Tuesday and taken to Udine, where she had her feeding tubes removed Friday.

Historical Context: Euthanasia in Italy

Laws in Italy regarding euthanasia are contradictory and controversial; direct euthanasia is expressly forbidden, but a patient does have the right to refuse treatment. Italians are split as to whether the right to refuse treatment should be granted when it leads to the death of a patient.

In 2006, a debate about euthanasia was sparked by Piergiorgio Welby, a terminally ill patient who suffered from muscular dystrophy and needed a respirator to keep him alive. In September, he sent a video letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano asking for the right to die. Welby’s case was taken to court and debated in Parliament, but no clear decision could be reached.

On Dec. 20, Dr. Mario Riccio fulfilled Welby’s request, sedating him and removing the respirator. Welby died 40 minutes after the respirator was removed; Riccio was arrested, but was later cleared of euthanasia charges. “The case of Piergiorgio Welby is not a case of euthanasia,” said Riccio, according to the International Herald Tribune. “It's a case of refusing treatment.”

Italian courts have called for the legislature to create clearer laws regarding euthanasia. The Radical Party has pushed hard for laws allowing limited forms of euthanasia, but right-wing and Catholic politicians resisted it. The church has a strong position against euthanasia, believing that humans cannot determine life and death.

“Their freedom does not extend to the ending of their own lives. Euthanasia and suicide are both a rejection of God's absolute sovereignty over life and death,” writes the BBC. However, the church has said that it is “morally acceptable to refuse extraordinary and aggressive medical means to preserve life,” according to the BBC.

Related Topic: Terri Schiavo

The Englaro case has been compared to the case of Terri Schiavo, an American woman in a persistent vegetative state who became the center of a right-to-die debate in 2005. Her husband asked doctors to remove her feeding tube, but her family took the case to court.

The case became national news, and politicians and activists from across the country argued the case. In March 2005, after seven years of bitter legal battles, Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed. She died March 31, nearly two weeks after the tube was removed.

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