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Italy: In Defense of the “Right to die”

UPDATE: Eluana Englaro died few hours after this post was written.

A legal battle over a young woman's ‘right to die’ after 17 years in a coma has spurred both vast online commentary and activism in Italy. Mostly in defense of “Eluana Englaro's choice”, Italian netizens have signed petitions, organized protests, and made YouTube videos of their own ‘living will’ testimonies, in defiance of both prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and the Vatican.

Eluana EnglaroEluana Englaro is a 38-year-old Italian woman who was left in a vegetative state after a car crash in 1992. Shortly before the accident, Eluana had paid a visit to a friend in a coma, and expressed to her father her firm will never to be kept alive artificially in case something similar should ever happen to her.

While lovingly caring for Eluana all these years, Beppino Englaro, her father, started a decade-long court battle to fulfill her wishes and allow her to die, even though Italian law does not recognize living wills [en]. The legal dispute eventually reached Italy's higher court and the European Union court in Strasbourg, and the final rulings supported Eluana's request to die. On Friday, February 6, her doctors began preparing to remove her feeding tubes.

Embracing Vatican ideas, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi tried to reverse the court ruling [en] by issuing an emergency decree that was quickly approved by the parliament. Italy's president, however, refused to sign it, and was supported by many legal scholars, journalists and ordinary citizens. Then, in a race against time to “save Eluana”, Berlusconi announced the immediate introduction of a “special bill” [it] that could be ratified by the parliament within one week, thus skirting the president's veto and forcing doctors to resume the feeding of Eluana. He also suggested a possible constitutional amendment, if necessary.

Rally in Milano
Photo by Radicali Milano, released under Creative Commons on Flickr.

While public events, both “pro-life” or “pro-Eluana”, were held during the weekend, a large rally is planned for Valentine's Day (February 14) in downtown Rome [now moved to Saturday February 21] against the “obscurantist dictatorship” [it] of the government initiatives. With Italy on the verge of a constitutional crisis, unprecedented since World War II, the whole country is now engulfed in heated discussions that are overflowing on the Internet.

A subversion of justice

Most bloggers see the Berlusconi move as an attempt to subvert state institutions. Mente critica [it] writes:

Sconfessare per decreto legge una sentenza definitiva di una Corte di cassazione è un colpo di stato verso uno dei legittimi poteri della repubblica. Un atto così incostituzionale che probabilmente nemmeno Franco o i colonnelli della giunta militare greca avrebbero avuto l’ardire di tentare.

Drafting an emergency decree to turn back a final sentence by a Higher Court is a coup de etat against one of the legitimate powers of our Republic. This is an act so openly unconstitutional that not even [Spanish dictator] Franco or the Greek military junta colonels would have had the guts to try it.

Random bits, un blog antropologicamente inferiore [it], after declaring his closeness to the parliament majority party, has this to say about the emergency decree:

Non siamo (ancora) di fronte a comportamenti apertamente golpisti, ma ci stiamo pericolosamente avvicinando al limite (…) ricordando al governo l'importanza della separazione dei poteri e dei meccanismi di checks and balances.

We are not (yet) facing openly dictatorial behavior, but we are getting dangerously closer to the limit. (…) reminding the government about the importance of separation between state powers and the mechanism of checks and balances.

Open World [it], quoting Berlusconi saying that Eluana Englaro in her current condition “is a person who could even have a child”, supports the need of a living will legislation and adds:

Il Governo sta autorizzando una parte molto importante dell’elettorato, quello cattolico, di diventare il padrone di uno Stato Laico come è l’Italia. Come è per Costituzione il nostro Paese è tutto il contrario di quello descritto dal Presidente del Consiglio.

The Government is authorizing a very important part of the electorate, Catholic people, to become masters of a secular state, which is what Italy is. This is also written in the constitution of our country, although it is contrary to the Prime Minister's description.

With pressure from the Vatican mounting all around, Catholic priest and blogger Paolo Padrini expresses his views on Passi nel deserto [it]:

In questo momento una sola cosa potrebbe disinnescare la miccia dello scontro sociale, oltre che istituzionale. Al più presto dovrebbero riunirsi i parlamentari cattolici di tutti gli schieramenti, presentare una legge sospensiva di ogni decisione fino ad una completa decisione circa una legge di “fine vita” che regoli anche il cosiddetto “testamento biologico” togliendo da esso ogni possibile fraintendimento pseudoeutanasico.

In this moment there is only one thing that could diffuse the bomb of a larger social and institutional clash. Very soon all Catholic members of parliament should get together and introduce a bill to suspend any action until a final decision about a law regulating the “end of one's life” and the so called “biologic testament” has been reached, in order to avoid any misunderstanding even close to euthanasia.

In Italian newspaper La Repubblica, a renowned constitutional scholar, Stefano Rodotà, has decribed the situation as a “constitutional tsunami” [it] and expressed concern [it] that “the anxiety of so many members of parliament will lead us to a shore where there is very little respect for people's rights and for their own humanity.” A commenter on this last article, 1partigiano wrote:

di nuovo il governo fa leggi ad personam, vedi il caso Eluana. La politica che deve fare leggi utilizzabili per tutti si accanisce su un fatto specifico da farne un decreto,noi cittadini dovremmo prendere coscienza di chi ci governa, della sua arroganza e ignoranza politica.

Again, the government makes laws ‘ad personam‘, see the Eluana case. Politics should produce apt laws for everybody, instead it perseveres on a single case and issues an emergency decree. We, as citizens, should be aware of who is governing us, his arrogance and political ignorance.

Online activism for “Eluana's choice”

Flickr has more than 150 pages with photos from rallies, drawings and other kind of pictures related to Eluana's case.

Facebook is a hotbed for activism: these days many people are protesting the Government actions by obscuring their profile picture, while a group supporting the Valentine's Day rally [it] in downtown Rome [now moved to Saturday February 21], quickly gained more than 2,000 members, and a petition supporting [it] “Eluana's choice” has been joined by almost 86,000 people. Several other groups are discussing the issues at stake and organizing local events – again, the vast majority supporting the court decision.

Last but not least, a campaign to email people's living will [it] directly to the labor minister is currently underway: they fill in and sign a form stating that they are against any prolonged artificial life support. Taking this strategy to the next level, dozens of people started short videos posting on YouTube [it] in which they detail their living wills. More than 100 videos are currently available, many of them with hundreds of viewers.

Also on YouTube, is the following video supporting a bill, recently introduced by Senator and surgeon Ignazio Marino, favoring the legal value of such ‘biological testaments’ (or living will):

This post was co-authored by Eleonora Pantò.


  • ldi

    You can also find Facebook groups pro livng will

  • I think what is at stake in Italy is more than a simple law on the right to decide about one’s own death.

    I summarized on my blog a series of actions that the current government has done and is trying to accomplish, the picture that comes out of it is gloomy for the future of democracy in Italy.

    These are my own views, my personal perspective. I am not alone in believing them: for example, recently Massimo Ottolenghi, born in 1915, brough up during fascism, dean of the lawyers organization in Turin, wrote:

    “Situazione triste e allarmante quella in cui versa il nostro Paese: sono angoscianti le analogie con le vicende che io, testimone ultranovantenne, ho già vissuto sotto il fascismo, e che oggi non posso e non devo tacere.”

    Sad and alarming situation in our country: there are distressing similarities with the events that I, now more than 90 years old, witnessed and I have already lived under fascism, and today I can not and must not be silent.

    “La grave crisi finanziaria si presenta di nuovo come occasione per scardinare lo Stato di diritto. E offre la tentazione di svincolare il potere da qualsiasi ostacolo e controllo conclamando, nel caso di Eluana Englaro, il trionfo di un’invocata legge naturale o divina in spregio alle sentenze definitive dei supremi organi giudiziari.”

    The financial crisi represents once again an opportunity for invalidating the rule of law. It offers a tentation to remove all obstaces and controls from power enstablishing, in Eluana Englaro’s case, the triumph of an invoked natural or divine law over final sentences from the highest judiciary courts.

    “La crisi si presta a individuare come nemici la Costituzione e i “diversi”, che appaiono come la fonte di tutti i guai, mentre il Parlamento è costituito da rappresentanti designati dalle segreterie di partiti anziché essere eletti dal popolo, così come era costituita la Camera delle Corporazioni durante il Fascismo.”

    The crisis allows to identify as enemies the Constitution and the “different”, which appear as the source of any trouble, while the Parliament is made up of representatives appointed by the secretariats of parties rather than elected by the people, as was the House of guilds during Fascism.

    [Background: the current electoral law, changed in 2005 months before the elections, gives inordinate power to secretariats, who can effectively decide who gets elected in the major parties, by making it very hard to propose new parties (lots of signatures and red tape required) while making life simple for the existing ones. It also removes personal preferences: you vote for the party or list, not the individual.

    Thus they obtain inordinate power, being able to choose who gets on what list and in which order, since they can basically decide who gets elected and who doesn’t. “Elected” officials no longer owe their elections to citizens, who can withdraw their preferences, but primarily to party rulers. ]

    “Inoltre, con i nuovi provvedimenti avviati dal governo, la giustizia viene spogliata dal potere di avviare le indagini su notizie di reato; potere che viene invece conferito alla polizia giudiziaria, soggetta direttamente all’esecutivo. Nel contempo la polizia, depotenziata di mezzi, viene umiliata dal controllo di costituende ronde di volontari designati dai partiti: una nuova milizia costituita da squadre di tifosi e di facinorosi così come è accaduto sotto il Fascismo. E per controllare l’opinione pubblica e trasformare l’informazione in propaganda, non sarà più permesso divulgare prima del processo i contenuti delle intercettazioni sebbene messe a disposizione delle parti.”

    Furthermore, with new measures pushed forward by the government, judges are stripped from the power to initiate investigations on reports of crime, power is instead given to the police, subject directly to the executive. Meanwhile the police, with reduced powers and means, is humiliated by the control to set up patrols of volunteers appointed by the parties: a new army made up of teams of supporters and troublemakers as happened under Fascism. To control public opinion and transform information into propaganda, it will no longer be possible to disclose before trial the contents of interceptions although they made available to the interested parts [lawyers and the people they represent].

    “Si tende infine a trasformare i cittadini in delatori, a cominciare dai medici, che ora sono indotti a denunciare gli immigrati irregolari, in violazione dei loro principi deontologici. Mancano solo i capifabbricato e la taglia sui diversi. Non occorre neppure la marcia su Roma né il Concordato: bastano un nuovo uomo della Provvidenza e un Papa re.”

    Finally, they want to turn citizens into whistle-blowers, including doctors, who are now encouraged to report [to the police] illegal immigrants [who seek to be cured] in violation of their ethical principles. We only lack the “capifabbricato” [in war time, they were officially people who were in charge of antiaircraft shelters – in practice, they were also used by fascism to have a local eye in each flat or building] and the ransom on the Different [hebrews, handicapped people, political dissidents, homosexuals, foreigners, etc.]. You do not need a new march on Rome or a the Concordat. Just a new Man of Providence [strongman] and a Pope-king.

  • thanks a lot, roberto, for your contribution (translations included ;)

    indeed, the situation is not so bright for the future of democracy in italy, the eluana’s case being just the last of several controversial issues

    one more reason to keep monitoring closely any future development, actually to have the whole world watching, and to keep spreading the news and talk about it anywhere possible…

  • Clara

    Life is a precious asset, but belongs exclusively to each of us. We all have the right to choose and in a terrible situation like this, it is preferable to leave than to stay in this earth to be in vegetative state.
    The issue of euthanasia is very delicate and therefore should be thoroughly studied and addressed with sensitivity and wisdom. And we should also put us in place of the person who asks to die. Would it be fair to keep Eluana in coma? Would it be fair to keep her in that horrible limbo? I think not.

    Rest in peace Eluana…

  • more than “euthanasia”, i think here it’s more correct to talk about the “right to die” and especially of the legal value of “living will”, that is non-existent in italy and most of europe, while in the US is legally binding

    that is, the freedom of choice about a “biologic testament” that everybody can set and spell out in advance, so then the authorities are bound to respect it no matter what – so, first of all the parliament must openly discuss and approve a specific law about it, not rushing through incostitutional decrees or manouvering at the last second to supposedly save a life, IMHO

    a first draft of such law was introduced a while a go in the italian senate..

  • […] blogpost. This one was on women’s “right to die”, by Bernardo Parella. This article told a true story about a girl in Itlay that was in a coma for a long time. The girl’s […]

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