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Comatose Italian woman dies; political furor continues

Food and water were being gradually withheld from the 37-year-old accident victim following a Supreme Court ruling. Berlusconi's government was making a last-ditch bid to keep her alive.

February 10, 2009|Maria De Cristofaro and Sebastian Rotella

ROME — A comatose 37-year-old woman at the center of a right-to-die case dividing Italy passed away Monday night amid an uproar over the government's last-ditch bid to keep her alive against the wishes of her family.

The death of Eluana Englaro, who suffered massive brain damage in a car accident 17 years ago, occurred as the case was being discussed by the Senate in Rome. On Friday, doctors at a clinic in her native Udine, in northeastern Italy, complied with a Supreme Court ruling and began to gradually suspend her food and water intake. The government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi then rushed to introduce an emergency law prohibiting the suspension of food and water to unconscious patients.

As the news of Englaro's death became known, senators in Rome exchanged angry words, with pro-government, center-right legislators calling center-left opponents "murderers."

After months of debate, public opinion was split down the middle in this Catholic country, in a controversy that bore similarities to the battle over the fate of Terri Schiavo, a comatose Florida woman who died in 2005.

In Udine, Englaro's father reacted tearfully to the end of his legal and political crusade. He said his daughter's death had "liberated her."

"Yes, she left us," Beppino Englaro said, according to the ANSA wire service. "But I don't want to say anything. I only want to be alone."

President Giorgio Napolitano urged Italians to observe a "silence that natural human respect requires of everyone" and share "a sentiment of profound participation in the pain of the family and all those who were close to poor Eluana."

As chief of state, Napolitano usually remains above the political fray. But the center-left president played a decisive role last week when he refused to sign a proposed Berlusconi decree forcing the clinic to resume force-feeding. Napolitano called the measure unconstitutional; the opposition accused Berlusconi of exploiting the case in an effort to amass extraordinary powers.

"Life does not belong to the government and does not belong to the church," declared a group of well-known leftists, including author and academic Umberto Eco, in a statement Monday. They accused Berlusconi of wanting to subject citizens' rights to "the totalitarian will of the state and the church."

The government camp insisted that it was trying to save a life from forces bent on imposing euthanasia.

On Monday evening, Berlusconi expressed "regret at the fact that the government's actions to save a life were made impossible."

The condemnation from the Vatican was harsher.

"They have killed an innocent person who was incapable of defending herself: Life is a gift of God and they had no right to take away that of Eluana," said Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins.

He cited Pope Benedict XVI's recent allusion to the case when the pontiff called euthanasia "a false and tragic response to human suffering."

Leaders of the government coalition vowed to push ahead with a drive to approve Berlusconi's bill this week.

The abrupt denouement avoided a scenario in which police might have had to make arrests at the clinic in Udine, one legislator said.

Although congressional deputy Benedetto della Vedova belongs to the center-right coalition, he rejected the allegations that the death had been the equivalent of murder.

"We have been saved from a really sad scene, the arrest of the doctors," Della Vedova said, according to the AGI news agency. "Eluana has gone in peace."

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rotella@latimes.com

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