updated 7/9/2008 4:32:00 PM ET 2008-07-09T20:32:00

An Italian court on Wednesday granted a man's request to disconnect the feeding tube of his daughter, who has been in a vegetative state for 16 years, lawyers said.

The case of Eluana Englaro has drawn comparisons here with that of Terry Schiavo, the American woman who was at the center of a right-to-die debate until her death in 2005.

Englaro was 20 years old when she went into a vegetative state following a car accident in 1992. Two years later doctors called her condition irreversible. She has been kept in a hospital and fed artificially in the northern city of Lecco.

Her father sought for more than 10 years to have her feeding tube removed, insisting this was her wish.

On Wednesday, an appeals court in Milan granted his appeal, on the ground that the vegetative state was irreversible and that her father was trying to conform to her will, family lawyer Vittorio Angiolini said.

"She simply wanted to be left to die, she wanted nature to take its course," the woman's father, Beppino Englaro, told the online TV of Italian daily La Repubblica. "Now I can set free the most splendid person I've known."

He said that coincidentally his daughter had visited a friend who was in a similar condition shortly before her accident. On that occasion, she expressed the will to refuse treatment, should she find herself in that condition.

Vatican calls ruling 'grave'
Italy does not allow euthanasia, but patients have a right to refuse treatment.

State prosecutors can appeal Wednesday's ruling to Italy's highest court within 60 days, Angiolini said. He said he did not think such as an appeal was likely.

The ruling immediately drew criticism from the Vatican, which is opposed to euthanasia and says life must be defended from conception to natural death.

Vatican Radio called the ruling "grave." Monsignor Rino Fisichella, who heads the Pontifical Academy for Life, told the ANSA news agency he was "saddened and embittered" at the news and that the sentence will effectively justify euthanasia.

"Eluana is a girl who is still alive; coma is a form of life," he was quoted as saying.

The issue has come to the forefront of the Italian debate in recent years, after the case of a paralyzed man who had publicly sought to die and got his wish in December 2006 when a doctor disconnected his respirator.

The case split the nation: Anti-euthanasia campaigners and some conservative politicians described the death of Piergiorgio Welby as murder. Supporters of the right-to-die campaign welcomed what they said was a suspension of therapy that conformed to the patient's will.

The Catholic Church denied Welby a religious funeral.

The U.S. also was divided by the case of Schiavo, who was diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state after her heart stopped in 1990.

Schiavo's husband wanted her feeding tube removed against the wishes of her parents. She died in 2005 amid protests outside her hospice after her husband prevailed in the polarizing dispute that reached the U.S. Congress, President George W. Bush and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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