Italy's top appeals court Thursday authorized a father to remove the feeding tube which has kept his comatose daughter alive for nearly seventeen years in the face of protests from the Vatican.
The ruling by the Court of Cassation in the case of Eluana Englaro, now 37, removes the last legal hurdle in a landmark right-to-die case which has fiercely divided opinion in Italy.
Englaro has been in a vegetative state in a hospital at Lecco in northern Italy, her home town, since suffering severe injuries in a 1992 car crash when she was nineteen.
The judges rejected an appeal against a ruling in July by a lower court in Milan which had authorized the removal of the life support. Englaro's father, Beppino Englaro, has been seeking legal permission to end her life in nearly a decade of court hearings.
The Vatican and Catholic politicians argue that removing the feeding tube amounts to euthanasia, which is illegal in Italy. However the July ruling said Englaro's coma was irreversible. It also took into account the fact that before the car crash she had said that if she ever had an accident and entered a vegetative state she would rather die than be kept alive artificially.
The Englaro case has been compared to that of Terri Schiavo, an American woman from Florida who spent 15 years in a vegetative state and was allowed to die in March 2006 against the wishes of her parents after a long court battle.
Earlier this week Cardinal Javier Cardinal Lozano Barragan, head of the Pontifical Council for Health, said removing Englaro's food and hydration would amount to "monstrous and inhuman murder."
The cardinal, the Vatican's "health minister," stated that "to suspend hydration and nutrition in a patient in a vegetative state worsens his or her condition and leads to a terrible death by hunger and thirst."
Englaro however has frequently appealed for his daughter to be ''freed from the inhumane and degrading condition in which she is forced to exist."