Debate in Italy over euthanasia issue

The issue of euthanasia has sparked strong debate in the Italian parliament as an Italian court on 7 July granted a man’s request to disconnect the feeding tube of his daughter, who had been in a vegetative state for 16 years.

Eluana Englaro was 20 years old when she went into a vegetative state following a car accident in 1992.

Two years later doctors called her condition irreversible.

She had been kept in a hospital and fed artificially in the northern city of Lecco.

Her father sought for more than 10 years to have her feeding tube removed, insisting that was her wish.

At the beginning of July, an appeals court in Milan granted his appeal, on the grounds that the vegetative state was irreversible and that her father was trying to conform to her will.

He said that coincidentally his daughter had visited a friend who was in a similar condition shortly before her accident.

On that occasion, she expressed the will to refuse treatment, should she find herself in similar condition.

Italy does not allow euthanasia, but patients have a right to refuse treatment.

State prosecutors could appeal Milan court’s ruling to Italy’s highest court within 60 days, but a previous verdict, which in 2007 gave legal guardians the chance to decide on treatment refusal, makes any appeal very unlikely.

While the judiciary case is still open, the Italian Senate is debating Englaro’s case.

Government parties and several Catholic senators are collecting signatures from parliament members against the Milan court decision.

The Senate could shortly vote to ask the Constitutional Court to rule on a potential conflict among Italian Parliament and the highest court.

The Milan ruling immediately drew criticism from the Vatican, which is opposed to euthanasia and says life must be defended from conception to natural death.

Domenico delle Foglie, spokesman of “Science and Life,” an anti euthanasia association close to the Catholic position, told AP Television that “the most serious match that it is being played in this context has to do with the euthanasia issue. In Europe all the countries that approved laws on living will, then opened the path to euthanasia. It deals with the matter if in Italy, either in a legislative prospective or in a cultural prospective, people want to approve euthanasia.”

The issue has come to the forefront of the Italian debate in recent years, after the case of a paralyzed man, Piergiorgio Welby, who had publicly sought to die and got his wish in December 2006 when a doctor disconnected his respirator.

The case split the nation – anti-euthanasia campaigners and some conservative politicians described the death of Welby as murder.

Supporters of the right-to-die campaign welcomed what they said was a suspension of an insistent medical treatment that conformed to the patient’s will.

The Catholic Church denied Welby a religious funeral.

“In Eluana Englaro’s case, unplugging the artificial feeling device doesn’t mean euthanasia,” said Mina Welby, wife of Piergiorgio and a right-to-die activist.

“It is just a renouncement to a treatment that has became useless. She personally asked not to stay in this vegetative life condition.”

In Italy, patients who are in vegetative state are usually treated at home.

One hospital treating such patients is the San Giovanni Battista Hospital.

This centre, run by the Catholic organisation of the Order of Malta, treats patients with special physiotherapy procedure and neurological stimulation.

According to Fabio Viselli, chief physician of neurological rehabilitation ward of San Giovanni battista hospital, it is very difficult to decide when a vegetative state is irreversible, but in accordance with the Catholic approach of his hospital he wouldn’t stop Eluana’s feeding.

According to Viselli, in Italy are estimated “an average number of cases (vegetative state suffers) on the entire national territory between 1500 and 2500 people, but it is very difficult to assess the gravity of each case and chances of recovery”.

As the debate on euthanasia is dividing public opinion and parliament, Paolo Ravasin, a muscular dystrophy sclerosis suffer and right-to-die activist for Luca Coscioni association declared on camera his living will.

“As soon as I will not be able to eat and drink through my mouth anymore,” said Ravasin, “I refuse any artificial feeding system.”

The issue has also divided opinion in the United States, in the case of Terry Schiavo, an American woman who was diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state after her heart stopped in 1990.

Schiavo’s husband wanted her feeding tube removed against the wishes of her parents.

She died in 2005 amid protests outside her hospice after her husband prevailed in the polarising dispute that reached the US Congress, President George W Bush and the US Supreme Court.


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