February 9, 2009

Eluana Englaro, finally, has died

Italian news agencies have reported that the woman at the heart of a right-to-die debate has died.

Senators who had been debating a bill designed to prevent Eluana Englaro's feeding tubes from being removed observed a minute of silence when the news was read out.

The ANSA agency, citing local, regional and law enforcement officials, reported Monday that Englaro died in the clinic in Udine where she has been cared for the past week.

Apcom news agency also reported the death, citing people close to the family.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

Italian senators raced Monday to discuss a bill designed to keep a woman in vegetative state from having her feeding tube disconnected, the latest twist in a right-to-die case that has consumed Italy.

The bill aimed at keeping Eluana Englaro alive is expected to win quick approval. It was proposed by forces loyal to Premier Silvio Berlusconi, whose conservative lawmakers have solid majority in Parliament.

Englaro, 38, has been in a vegetative state since she was in a car accident 17 years ago. Her doctors have said her condition is irreversible. Late last year, her father won a decade-long court battle to allow her feeding tubes to be removed, saying that was her wish.

In line with the high court ruling, medical workers on Friday began gradually suspending food and water for Englaro. Citing privacy rules, they have not given updates on the procedure.

But Italy's center-right government, backed by the Vatican, has been pressing to keep her alive, racing against time to pass legislation prohibiting food and water from being suspended for patients who depend on them.

After debate, the legislation reached the Senate floor late Monday. The final Senate vote is scheduled for Tuesday, despite amendments that some center-left opposition lawmakers have promised. The lower house scheduled its vote for Wednesday.

Alessandro Pace, constitutional law professor at Rome University, said the law could not apply to Englaro because of previous court rulings but it could affect future right-to-die cases.

Health Minister Maurizio Sacconi, however, has said the text of the law might undergo changes to make sure it can be applied to Englaro.

Her case has stirred strong emotions on both sides of the right-to-die debate. Protesters have been staging daily demonstrations in front of the medical facility in Udine, in northeastern Italy, where Englaro is being cared for.

Italy does not allow euthanasia but patients have a right to refuse treatment. But there is no law that allows them to give advance directions on what treatment they wish to receive if they become unconscious.

Berlusconi has said stopping feeding Englaro is tantamount to the "killing of a human being who is still alive" and claimed that Englaro could in theory even bear a child.

Englaro's neurologist, Dr. Carlo Alberto Defanti, has said aside from her brain injury, Englaro was strong and in good health. In an interview published Monday in the Corriere della Sera newspaper, he said doubted she would die in the first week without food and water.

"From the moment of the suspension to death, some 12-14 days could pass," he was quoted as saying.

Berlusconi's government passed an emergency decree Friday to prevent Englaro from having her tube disconnected. But the move led to a rare institutional crisis, as the country's president, Giorgio Napolitano, rejected it on the grounds the decree defied court rulings.

The Englaro case has drawn comparisons with that of Terri Schiavo, the American woman who died in 2005 after an fierce right-to-die debate.

Schiavo's feeding tube was removed in March 2005. Congress passed a bill to allow a federal court to review the Florida woman's case, and then-President George W. Bush returned from his Texas ranch to sign the bill into law. A federal judge refused to order the tube reinserted, a decision upheld by a federal appeals court and the Supreme Court.

Source: The Associated Press

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