Eluana Englaro, Eluana Englaro euthanasia, Eluana Englaro
Englaro family/AP
Eluana Englaro

Eluana Englaro Dies, Ending Saga that Divided Italy

February 09, 2009 05:34 PM
by Denis Cummings
Eluana Englaro, a 38-year-old Italian woman in a vegetative state, died Monday days after her feeding tube was removed, ending a contentious right-to-die case.

Eluana Englaro Dies

Eluana Englaro, a 38-year-old woman who has been in a vegetative state since a 1992 car accident, died late Monday night, four days after her feeding tubes were removed. “Yes, she has left us,” her father, Beppino Englaro, told state news agency ANSA. “But I don’t want to say anything, I just want to be alone.”

Eluana had her feeding tubes removed Friday, three days after she was transferred from the hospice that treated her for 17 years to a clinic that agreed to let her die. She was expected to survive for 12-14 days without the tubes.

Mr. Englaro won a series of court decisions over the past two years that allowed him to let his daughter die. He has received criticism from the Vatican, conservative politicians and many people in the heavily Catholic country, where a recent poll found that 47 percent of the population believed she should live and 47 percent believed she should be allowed to die.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had issued an emergency decree Friday forcing doctors to reinsert the feeding tubes, but it was rejected by President Giorgio Napolitano because it overrode Italy’s highest court. On Monday, Berlusconi was in the process of pushing a bill through Parliament that would forbid the feeding of people “unable to take care of themselves” to be suspended.

Euthanasia is illegal in Italy, but patients have the right to refuse treatment. Italian courts decided that Mr. Englaro could refuse treatment for his daughter because she had made statements before the accident saying that she would have wanted to die if she was ever such a state.

The Vatican and Berlusconi’s center-right party have pushed for laws explicitly forbidding doctors to refuse treatment if it would result in death. “I hope the Senate can proceed on the established calendar so that this sacrifice wasn’t completely in vain,” said Health Minister Maurizio Sacconi to the Senate.

Background: The case of Eluana Englaro

Eluana Englaro was 21 years old when a car accident caused her severe brain damage and put her in a persistent vegetative state. 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.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines