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ROME (Reuters) - A right-to-die case that has split Italy turned into a political crisis for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Friday when the country's president refused to sign his decree ordering doctors to keep a comatose woman alive.
The Vatican, which believes that stopping feeding the woman would be tantamount to euthanasia, sided with the government and criticized President Giorgio Napolitano in a rare clash with the head of state of this mainly Catholic country.
Eluana Englaro, 38, has been in a coma since a car crash in 1992 and has been called "Italy's Terri Schiavo" -- the American who spent 15 years in a vegetative state and was allowed to die in 2005 after a long court battle.
This week Englaro's father, who has battled his way through Italy's courts for more than 10 years, took her to a new hospice that agreed to stop nutrition after several other clinics refused because they feared retaliation.
Italy's top court ruled last year Englaro should be allowed to die, confirming a previous ruling by a lower court that her coma was irreversible and that before the accident she had stated her preference not to be kept alive artificially.
Doctors at the clinic began withdrawing food and water on Friday in line with that ruling.
But Berlusconi's cabinet quickly issued a decree barring doctors from stopping nutrition, effectively over-ruling the country's top judges.
"It's a never-ending torment," said Beppino Englaro, the woman's father.
Shortly after Berlusconi issued the decree, Napolitano, who had warned him not to use a decree on such a delicate issue, told him he would not give it the signature needed for it to become law.
Berlusconi responded by summoning a new cabinet meeting for late on Friday night to approve a draft bill to be sent to parliament, where he has a comfortable majority.
"As a father, I could never allow a decision that would inflict suffering on a person who is still alive, breathes on her own and could hypothetically have a child," he said.
The center-left opposition attacked Berlusconi for clashing with Napolitano, a former communist. Even one of the prime minister's closest allies, parliament speaker and right-wing politician Gianfranco Fini, expressed concern over the standoff.
Many Catholic politicians have said that not feeding the woman amounts to euthanasia, which is illegal in Italy, and had urged Berlusconi to intervene.
Medical experts have said it could take up to two weeks for Englaro to die once doctors interrupt nutrition and hydration. Most say she would feel no pain.
A priest celebrated mass for anti-euthanasia activists outside the hospice on Friday and a group of protesters put up banners reading "Berlusconi, save Eluana."
Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Vatican's Justice and Peace department, told ANSA news agency he was "deeply disappointed" by Napolitano's decision.
"It is disturbing to see that in the midst of all these political diatribes, a person is being killed," Martino said.
Additional reporting by Sara Rossi; Editing by Dominic Evans