Image: Eluana Englaro
Eluana Englaro was moved to a clinic in northern Italy that agreed to gradually stop feeding her. The transfer set off a firestorm, with appeals from anti-euthanasia groups and Catholic Church officials to keep her alive.
updated 2/6/2009 3:35:22 PM ET 2009-02-06T20:35:22

Italy's government issued an emergency decree Friday to prevent a woman in a vegetative state from having her feeding tubes disconnected, but the president immediately said he wouldn't sign it.

As a result, the woman's family vowed to go ahead and disconnect the tubes, and her nutritional intake was being reduced in preparation.

President Giorgio Napolitano said the government decree was unconstitutional since it violated the "fundamental" separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches. He said it defied court rulings that have favored removing Eluana Englaro's feeding tubes.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi insisted the decree was urgent since procedures to disconnect Englaro's feeding tubes had begun. Given Napolitano's refusal to sign the decree, Berlusconi said he would in the next two to three days ask parliament, where he has a solid majority, to turn the decree into law.

If the law passes, Napolitano could ask parliament to reconsider. But if both houses approve it unchanged a second time, it will become law, although it wasn't clear if it could pass in time to save Englaro.

The bitter right-to-die debate has divided Italy and prompted direct appeals by the Vatican in this overwhelmingly Catholic nation to keep Englaro alive. Friday's developments also exposed a rare institutional battle between Berlusconi and Napolitano, who is Italy's top official and a respected moral voice.

Englaro has been in a vegetative state since a car accident in 1992; she was 20 at the time. Two years later, doctors called her condition irreversible.

Her father won a protracted court battle to disconnect her feeding tube, which he said had been her wish.

Cabinet passed decree
The government decree, passed at a Cabinet meeting, states that feeding and hydrating patients who depend on it "can in no case be suspended," Berlusconi told a news conference.

The premier said the government acted because there was no thorough legislation on the issue.

"I would feel responsible for failing to come to the rescue of somebody whose life was in danger," Berlusconi said, explaining why the government had decided to intervene.

This week, Englaro was moved to a clinic in northern Italy that agreed to gradually stop feeding her. The transfer set off a firestorm, with appeals from anti-euthanasia groups and Catholic Church officials to keep her alive.

Italy does not allow euthanasia. Patients have a right to refuse treatment, but there is no law that allows them to give advance directions on what treatment they wish to receive if they become unconscious.

There have been calls to discuss such legislation, but the issue is thorny in Italy. Consensus, even within the same political bloc, remains elusive.

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

In the American's case, Schiavo's feeding tube was removed in March 2005. Congress passed a bill to allow a federal court to review the Florida woman's case, and then-President George W. Bush returned from his Texas ranch to sign the bill into law. A federal judge refused to order the tube reinserted, a decision upheld by a federal appeals court and the Supreme Court.

In a letter sent to Italy's Cabinet before the decree's approval, Napolitano said the fundamental separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches needed to be safeguarded.

He cited the decision last year by Italy's highest court that effectively put its seal of approval on a lower court's ruling allowing the feeding tube to be removed.

In explaining the need for the decree, Berlusconi urged doctors and relatives to rethink their decision, which he described as "the killing of a human being who is still alive." He described Englaro as somebody who could even "bear a child and who is in a vegetative state that could change."

But the woman's relatives were undeterred, even though the government sent inspectors to the facility where Englaro was being cared for in the northeastern city of Udine.

Vittorio Angiolini, the family's lawyer, said he was certain the family was acting within the law. Angiolini described the decree as an "abnormal measure" and praised Napolitano's stance as "impeccable."

Vatican praises government
The government's move won the praise of the Vatican.

Elio Sgreccia, a top official with the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life, told the ANSA news agency that Englaro "has the right to live."

"The political community must sustain her life with the means it has," Sgreccia was quoted as saying.

On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI intervened indirectly in the Englaro case, saying euthanasia was a "false solution" to suffering that wasn't worthy of humans.

Napolitano is a former Communist, while Berlusconi is a conservative. But Napolitano's political career has been marked by moderation and moral rigor, and as president he is expected to be above the political fray to safeguard the constitution. As a result, the face-off appeared to have more to do with Berlusconi asserting the power of the executive branch and Napolitano holding him in check, rather than any personal squabble based on traditional political lines.

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