ROME (Reuters) - Eluana Englaro, the comatose woman at the center of a right-to-die case in Italy, died on Monday despite an attempt by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to order doctors to keep her alive through a feeding tube.
The 38-year-old Englaro had been in a coma since a 1992 car crash. Nutrition was stopped four days ago at the request of the family.
The case divided mainly Catholic Italy, with daily demonstrations and sit-ins by those who favored letting her die and those who said it was tantamount to murder.
It also led to a constitutional crisis pitting Berlusconi against the head of state and provoked a debate about whether the Vatican was unduly interfering.
Berlusconi said in a statement he was "deeply pained" to hear of Englaro's death and was "very sad that the government's attempt to save a life were rendered impossible."
A moment of silence was observed in the Senate, which was debating a law that would have forced the clinic in northern Italy where she was hospitalized to resume feeding her through a tube.
The silence quickly turned to shouting and finger pointing as center-left and center-right politicians accused each other of trying to make capital from the case that has riveted Italy for months and raised the ire of the Vatican.
"She didn't die. She was killed," Gaetano Quagliarello, a center-right senator from Berlusconi's party shouted in the senate as other lawmakers screamed "murderers, murderers" toward the center-left benches.
Englaro was called "Italy's Terri Schiavo," the American woman in a vegetative state who was allowed to die in 2005 after a long legal fight.
"May the Lord forgive those who brought her to this point," said Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, the Vatican's health minister, who backed Berlusconi's attempts to force the clinic to resume feeding.
He told Ansa news agency that he would consider it "a crime if any human intervention was decisive in her death."
Catholic activists who were opposed to stopping nutrition said magistrates should order the woman's body sequestered pending an autopsy and a full judicial investigation.
"Something very strange has happened," said Gianluigi Gigli, head of the "For Eluana" anti-euthanasia group.
Doctors had stopped the feeding only last Friday and many had expected her to live several weeks longer.
The woman's father battled his way through Italy's courts for 10 years to have her feeding tube disconnected, saying it was her wish not to be kept alive artificially.
"I just want to be alone," he said after his daughter died.
Berlusconi issued an emergency decree on Friday ordering doctors to resume feeding the woman but it was rejected as unconstitutional by President Giorgio Napolitano.
"If she was killed she was killed by our hypocrisy and our slowness," said Pier Ferdinando Casini, a Catholic MP who opposed the stopping of feeding but said politicians should have passed a comprehensive law on end-of-life issues long ago.
For the third day in succession, Pope Benedict indirectly referred to the case, telling the new Brazilian ambassador to the Vatican that "the sanctity of life must be safeguarded from conception to its natural end."
Writing by Philip Pullella, additional reporting by Sara Rossi; Editing by Angus MacSwan