By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife at BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest with reporting from Italy
ROME/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– The Vatican and several Italian church leaders expressed their pain Tuesday, February 10, about the sudden death of a 38-year-old woman who ignited a fierce right-to-die debate that divided Italy.
Eluana Englaro had been in a vegetative state since she was in a car accident 17 years ago. She died late Monday, February 9, in a clinic in Udine, northern Italy, where she had been for the past week after all feeding and hydration was stopped, her family and attorney confirmed.
“Yes, she has left us,” the ANSA news agency quoted her father, Beppino Englaro, as saying. “But I don’t want to say anything, I just want to be alone.” Englaro’s death came as lawmakers in Parliament rushed to pass a bill designed to keep her alive. While her family had fought to have feeding tubes removed, the government of Silvio Berlusconi, backed by the Vatican, opposed the move which it said amounted to killing her.
The government passed an emergency decree Friday, February 6, to prevent Englaro from having her feeding tube disconnected. But the move led to a rare institutional crisis as the country’s president, Giorgio Napolitano, rejected it on the grounds it defied court rulings.
Late last year, her father won a decade-long court battle to allow her feeding tube to be removed, saying that was her wish. In line with the high court ruling, medical workers on Friday, February 6, began suspending her food and water. “‘The death of Eluana can only leave a shadow of sadness given the circumstances that surround it,” said Federico Lombardi, Vatican Spokesman and Director of Vatican Radio in a statement seen by BosNewsLife. “But physical death never has the last word for Christians. Even in Eluana’s name, therefore, we will continue to search for the most effective ways to serve life,” he added.
The Englaro case has drawn comparisons with that of Terri Schiavo, the American woman who died after she was disconnected from life in 2005 at the request of her husband, amid a heated right-to-die debate. Supporters of the deaths of both women, and some doctors, said their coma situations were “irreversible.”
However pro-life activists have pointed out to examples such as Jan Grzebski, a Polish railway
worker from the Polish town of Dzialdowo, who was in a coma for 19 years after being hit by a train in 1988, although some blamed his situation on a brain tumor.
He was kept on life support at the request of his praying family and woke up at the age of 65 after almost two decades in 2007, instantly becoming a part of medical history.
When Grzebski went into a coma, Poland was still ruled by its last Communist leader, Wojciech Jaruzelski. “When I went into a coma there was only tea and vinegar in the shops, meat was rationed and huge petrol queues were everywhere.”
Soon after, Communism collapsed and the country embraced a free market economy. “Now I see people on the streets with mobile phones and there are so many goods in the shops it makes my head spin,” he told Polish television about his country, that meanwhile became a member of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance.
He credited his survival to his wife, Gertruda, who cared for him. Doctors gave him only two or three years to live after the accident. “It was Gertruda that saved me, and I’ll never forget it,” Grzebski told news channel TVN24 of his recovery. His wife said she moved her husband every hour to prevent bed sores. “I cried a lot, and I prayed a lot,” she said on Polsat television. “Those who came to see us kept asking: ‘When is he going to die?’ But he’s not dead.”
Grzesbski eventually died in December 2008, apparently because of heart failure, after spending over one and a half year with his wife, and seeing his children and 11 grand children.
While some doctors questioned whether the much younger Italian woman who died Monday, February 9, would have been able to come out of her coma, others regard her death as murder.
“This sudden death, when just this morning the experts said her conditions were stable, is perplexing,” reportedly said Dr. Gianluigi Gigli, a neurologist at the University of Udine who had supported the government’s efforts to keep her alive.
Rome’s right-wing mayor, Gianni Alemanno, announced the Colosseum would be lit all night Tuesday, February 10, in a sign of mourning for “a life that could have and should have been saved.”
The Colosseum has become a symbol of Italy’s fight against capital punishment. Since 1999, it has been lit up every time a death sentence is commuted somewhere in the world or a country abolishes capital punishment.
Government officials reportedly vowed to pass the legislation against active euthanasia, even though it was too late to save Englaro. “I hope the Senate can proceed on the established calendar so that this sacrifice wasn’t completely in vain,” Health Minister Maurizio Sacconi told the Senate minutes after the death was announced.
Left wing politicians expressed outrage over his remarks, saying the wishes of the family should be respected. (BosNewsLife’s NEWS WATCH is a regular look at key news developments impacting the Church and/or compassonate professionals).