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Italy: In Defense of the “Right to die”

Categories: Western Europe, Italy, Vatican City, Breaking News, Digital Activism, Freedom of Speech, Governance, Health, Politics, Protest, Religion

UPDATE: Eluana Englaro died [1] 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 [2] [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 [3] [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” [4] [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 [5], 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” [6] [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 [7] [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 [8] [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 [9] [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 [10] [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” [11] [it] and expressed concern [12] [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 [13] 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 [14] [it] in downtown Rome [now moved to Saturday February 21], quickly gained more than 2,000 members, and a petition supporting [15] [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 [16] [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 [17] [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 [18], favoring the legal value of such ‘biological testaments’ (or living will):

This post was co-authored by Eleonora Pantò [19].