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February 08, 2009

Italy's Constitutional Crisis

Italy is facing its own version of the Terri Shiavo controversy. Eluana Englaro was left in a vegetative state after a car crash in 1992. Her father has been trying to remove her feeding tubes for the past ten years, because, according to him, that was her instruction should something like this happen.

After denials in the lower courts, Italy's top court, the Court of Cassation, acknowledged the father's right to disconnect the feeding tubes in November. Since then, Eluana has been transfered to a private hospital in preparation. On Friday, her caregivers began to reduce her feeding.

That's what led to the constitutional crisis:

But in an extraordinary turn of events, the country's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, after consultation with the Vatican, 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.

Unlike the Schiavo case, there doesn't appear to be a disagreement about Eluana's wishes. The only issue is whether it is lawful to deprive someone in a vegetative state of food and water. It is legal in Italy for an individual to refuse treatment. The controversy arose because it is Eluana's father, her guardian, who wants to refuse continued treatment.

More: Agence France-Presse has a better write-up than the first one I linked.

Here in the United States it is legal for an individual to refuse life-prolonging treatment, including food and water. Generally, an individual's guardian is presumed to speak for the ward. Schiavo's case was made more difficult because her family alleged that her guardian-husband had a conflict of interest which led him to inaccurately express her wishes.

The lesson of the Schiavo case is to make your wishes clear and complete to more than one person and preferably in writing, so that if something happens to you there is no doubt about what you would have wanted.


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posted by Gabriel Malor at 03:35 PM

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