Berlusconi seeks to overrule court in right-to-die case


THE COMPLEX saga of Eluana Englaro, the 37-year-old Italian woman who has been in a coma for the last 17 years, has now become a dramatic race against time as the Berlusconi government attempts to rush legislation through parliament this week in an attempt to stop her being allowed to die.

The Eluana “case” came close to prompting a constitutional crisis last weekend when President Giorgio Napolitano refused to sign an emergency decree issued by Mr Berlusconi. With the decree, the prime minister had effectively attempted to halt the procedure whereby Eluana’s feeding tubes would be disconnected.

Last Friday, in accordance with a cassation court ruling of November 2008, doctors in a clinic in the northern city of Udine began reducing Eluana’s nutrition in preparation for the removal of her feeding tubes. That cassation court ruling had looked like a definitive judgment marking the end of a 10-year, right-to-die legal battle by Beppino Englaro, father of Eluana. He had campaigned for the right to disconnect her feeding tubes, in accordance, he says, with her own wishes expressed before the 1992 car accident that left her in a “persistent vegetative state”.

In a dramatic turn of events, however, Mr Berlusconi attempted to introduce a decree that would, de facto, have reversed the earlier ruling by making it illegal to suspend food and water.

Calling the decree “inopportune”, Mr Napolitano refused to sign it into law both because it would have overruled an existing court ruling and also because it concerned a complex matter that should be brought before parliament.

Arguing that some sort of intervention was absolutely necessary, Mr Berlusconi justified his decree, saying: “I put myself in the shoes of any father. If one of my children was lying there, alive and, as people tell me, looking well and with her bodily functions such as her menstrual cycle still active, then I really wouldn’t be able to bring myself to pull the plug.”

Having failed to fill the legislative vacuum on this end-of-life issue by the fast-track path of a government decree, Mr Berlusconi now hopes to rush a Bill through parliament this week.

Such a lightning fast parliamentary passage is highly unusual in a country where the enactment of controversial legislation can take years, let alone days.

In the meantime, it is unclear just how long it will take for Eluana to die.

The first vote on the Bill could come as early as tonight when the matter comes before the Senate. However, the Bill’s progress could be at least temporarily halted by filibustering in the lower house from Radical party deputies. Were this to happen, the government will most likely speed up the parliamentary process by calling for a vote of confidence on the issue.

Clearly upset by the impending political intervention, Eluana’s father issued a dramatic call on Saturday to both Mr Napolitano and Mr Berlusconi.

Saying that he was speaking “father to father”, Mr Englaro invited both men to come, “alone”, to the clinic in Udine to assess “privately” for themselves the true condition of Eluana.

He said that inaccurate media reports about his daughter’s condition had proved both confusing and misleading. Mr Englaro was speaking from his home in Lecco where he has remained in order to look after his gravely ill wife, Saturnia, mother of Eluana.

Italian public opinion remains deeply divided by the issue. While those in favour of the right to die staged protests in Naples and in front of parliament over the weekend, other protesters have been holding a vigil outside the Udine clinic, calling on the doctors not to disconnect Eluana’s feeding tubes.

Throughout this tormented public debate, the Catholic Church has repeatedly made itself heard with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, last weekend calling the treatment of Eluana “murder”.

Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday called for respect “for the dignity of human life even when the person is weak and suffering”. Yesterday, during his Sunday Angelus address, he called for prayers for the sick, “especially for the most seriously sick and those who are totally in the hands of others”.