Image: Piergiorgio Welby
Afp  /  AFP-Getty Images file
A recent picture shows Piergiorgio Welby, a 60-year-old Italian man paralyzed by progressive muscular dystrophy. He has unsuccessfully petitioned the government to unplug his respirator.
updated 12/16/2006 11:43:28 PM ET 2006-12-17T04:43:28

An Italian judge rejected a paralyzed man’s request to be removed from a respirator Saturday, ruling that the law does not permit the denial of lifesaving care and urging lawmakers to confront the issue.

Piergiorgio Welby, whose body has been devastated by muscular dystrophy, had pleaded repeatedly to be allowed to die of his disease, and his case has divided politicians and doctors in Italy. The Roman Catholic Church, which wields significant moral and political influence in Italy, teaches that life should reach its “natural end.”

Welby, 60, asked Italy’s president this fall to legalize the withdrawal of his life-sustaining treatment, and Italy’s tiny but vocal Radical Party has championed his cause.

Gradually paralyzed by the condition diagnosed when he was a teenager, Welby has been confined to bed for years, and now can barely move his lips and eyebrows. He receives nourishment through a tube, breathes with a respirator and communicates through a voice synthesizer.

Doctors cite obligation to provide care
Judge Angela Salvio ruled that Welby has a constitutional right to halt his treatment, but she noted that Italy’s medical code requires doctors to maintain the life of a patient. Physicians, she wrote, “even when faced with the request of the patient, must not carry out ... treatments aimed at causing death.”

Welby’s physician has said that if his respirator were removed, he would be obliged to reattach it.

The judge also noted that Italy’s penal code outlaws the “homicide of a consenting person and helping (someone) to commit suicide.”

The constitution states that no one can be forced to undergo health treatments unless ordered by law and that the law cannot violate “respect of the human person,” but Salvio wrote that this right “is not concretely protected” by other law.

“Only political and legislative efforts, taking up the task of interpreting the growing social and cultural sensibility about the care of the terminally will, of giving answers to the solitude and desperation of the ill ... can fill the void” in the law, she wrote.

Supporters of Welby’s cause held vigils Saturday evening in cities throughout Italy. His sister joined about 200 people at a candlelit rally outside Rome’s City Hall. Supporters also turned out in London’s Trafalgar Square, and another vigil was planned in Brussels, Belgium, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

‘Look at the suffering,’ advocates say
Marco Cappato, a Radical Party member in the European Parliament, and lawyers for a group lobbying for voluntary euthanasia said they were looking for legal means to help Welby end his treatment.

Franco Giordano, leader of a Communist party in Premier Romano Prodi’s center-left coalition, urged fellow politicians to “take a step back from ideological positions and look at the suffering” caused by extending Welby’s life against his wishes.

But many political figures here supported the ruling.

Sen. Rocco Buttiglione, a center-right opposition leader close to the Vatican, said the judge was interpreting “law and conscience. No one can order someone to kill.”

Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the late Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and a right-wing legislator, said it would be “extremely dangerous” to let individuals decide their fate outside of the law, the Italian news agency reported.

U.S. law generally permits patients to ask that medical treatment be withheld or withdrawn, even if it raises their risk of dying. Voters in Oregon went further and approved the first physician-assisted suicide law in the U.S. in 1994, but it is now under legal challenge.

In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country to legalize voluntary euthanasia — where patients are killed at their request to ease suffering, even in cases where they might survive without treatment. Belgium legalized it under strict conditions in 2002.

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