February 7, 2009 / 4:00 PM / 10 years ago

Vatican urges rethink in Italy right-to-die case

ROME (Reuters) - The Vatican and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi piled pressure on Italy’s president to change his mind and order that a comatose woman be kept alive in a right-to-die case that has split the mainly Catholic country.

Car accident victim Eluana Englaro, who has been in a coma for 16 years, poses in an undated family photo in Lecco. REUTERS/Handout

President Giorgio Napolitano has refused to sign a decree by Berlusconi’s government which circumvented a high court ruling and ordered doctors to resume force-feeding the woman, who has been in a coma since a car crash in 1992.

In a rare clash with the president, the Vatican publicly sided with Berlusconi on the case, urging Napolitano to reconsider the decree and keep Eluana Englaro alive.

“I think the government is doing everything possible to save Eluana’s life,” Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, the Vatican’s health minister, told Italia 1 television on Saturday.

“We ask the Lord that the president of the republic can reconsider ... and find a way to reconcile this decree with the Italian constitution,” he said.

Doctors began withdrawing food from 38-year-old Englaro on Friday in line with a ruling by Italy’s highest court to allow her to die, as requested by her father.

Hours later, Berlusconi’s cabinet issued an emergency decree ordering them to resume feeding the woman, but Napolitano said the measure was unconstitutional because it overruled the country’s top judges and refused to sign it.

Analysts said Berlusconi, who won a landslide election last year, was using the highly emotional case to concentrate power in his hands by weakening the head of state and the courts.

“He is trying to reduce the power of the courts and the residual powers of the president, and he already has control of both houses of parliament,” said James Walston, professor of Italian politics at the American University of Rome.

“If he succeeds, it’s a form of coup. He is basically changing the Italian constitution. And he is doing this with the support of the Vatican, which is a strong ally.”

Berlusconi said on Saturday a letter by Napolitano explaining his opposition to the decree paved the way for euthanasia, which is illegal in Italy.

“I had sincerely hoped that the president would distance himself from a judicial stance that we do not accept,” he said.

He later said the constitution needed “clarifying.”

The center-left opposition has backed Napolitano, a former communist whose powers are largely symbolic.

Even one of Berlusconi’s closest allies, parliament speaker Gianfranco Fini, said he was deeply concerned about the clash between the prime minister and the head of state.

Berlusconi is now hoping to rush through parliament, where he has a comfortable majority, a draft bill barring doctors from stopping nutrition to comatose patients.

Englaro’s case has been compared to that of Terri Schiavo, the American woman who was allowed to die in 2005 after a long legal battle.

Englaro’s father has battled his way through Italy’s courts for more than 10 years, saying that, before the accident, she had stated her wish not to be kept alive artificially.

On Saturday he invited Berlusconi and Napolitano to visit her, so they could see for themselves her condition.

This week he took her to a new hospice which has agreed to stop nutrition, after several clinics turned him down fearing retaliation.

Medical experts say it could take around two weeks for Englaro to die. Most say she would feel no pain.

Editing by Alison Williams

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