Italy faces constitutional crisis over coma woman
Michael Day in Rome
The Observer, Sunday 8 February 2009
The Italian government has been plunged into a constitutional crisis over the fate of a 38-year-old woman who has been in a coma for the past 17 years. Eluana Englaro was left in a vegetative state after a car crash in 1992. After a decade-long court battle, doctors reduced her nutrition on Friday in preparation for removing her feeding tubes, which her father claims would be in accordance with her wishes.
But in an extraordinary turn of events, the country's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, after consultation with the Vatican [which the Vatican denies], has issued an emergency decree stating that food and water cannot be suspended for any patient depending upon them, reversing the earlier court ruling. On issuing the emergency decree, Berlusconi declared: "This is murder. I would be failing to rescue her. I'm not a Pontius Pilate."
Justifying his campaign to save Englaro's life, the prime minister added that, physically at least, she was "in the condition to have babies", a remark described by La Stampa newspaper as "shocking". Giorgio Napolitano, Italy's president, has refused to sign the decree, but if it is ratified by the Italian parliament doctors may be obliged to resume the feeding of Eluana early this week.
But, in a moving interview with the Observer, Eluana's father Beppino said last week that the doctors were carrying out his daughter's wishes by allowing her to die. "If she couldn't be what she was (before the accident in 1992) then she would not have wanted to live". [Hearsay, though I suppose if there's been a court battle, this has been weighed by competent authorities.]
The case has deeply divided Italian society and raised concerns over the influence of the Vatican. Yesterday Pope Benedict indirectly referred to Englaro in a message delivered to mark the World Day of the Sick, stating that society had a duty to defend "the absolute and supreme dignity of every human being" even when "weak and shrouded in the mystery of suffering". But even some of Berlusconi's political allies, including the president of the lower house of parliament, Gianfranco Fini, have stated that the supreme court ruling should be obeyed and Englaro should be allowed to die.
Opposition leader Walter Veltroni, of the centre-left Democratic party, said the government should leave the Englaro family in peace and warned that Berlusconi's intervention "could cause a very dangerous constitutional crisis". Last night demonstrations in support of Eluana's right to die and the supreme court ruling were taking place across Italy.
[Details of the woman's planned death are elaborated upon here.] The process means the Englaro family and their doctors are now in a race against time as they try to end Eluana's life before the Berlusconi government and its backers in the Vatican halt the process.
Beppino, 67, was last night in the family home in Lecco, 30 miles north of Milan, caring for his wife and Eluana's mother, Saturna, who is gravely ill with cancer. After a long, agonising fight to allow his daughter to die, he described the government's last-ditch attempts as "a grotesque attack on my family".
Prior to issuing the decree, Berlusconi was involved in frantic telephone exchanges with the Vatican head of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone [See above about this alleged conversation and note the complete misunderstanding of Bertone's role as secretary of state], who implored the prime minister to prevent Eluana's death. The cardinal reportedly told Berlusconi: "We have to stop this crime against humanity."
Doctors have confirmed that, after 17 years and with such catastrophic brain damage, Eluana will never regain consciousness or awareness. The anaesthetist caring for her, Professor Antonio de Monte, said: "Eluana died 17 years ago."