Italian Officials Vow to Clarify Right-to-Die Law

Italian politicians vowed Tuesday to quickly pass legislation clarifying the right to die following the death of a woman in a vegetative state whose case had gripped the country.

Eluana Englaro had been at the center of a fierce legal battle until her death Monday night, after her family cut off her food and water.

The case has divided the Catholic nation for weeks and involved the Vatican. Newspapers devoted enormous space to the story and a top TV news executive resigned after his station refused to cut away from the reality show "Big Brother."

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 their treatment if they became incapacitated.

Englaro, 38, fell into what her doctors called an irreversible vegetative state after a 1992 car accident. Her father won a decade-long court battle to allow her feeding tube to be removed, saying she had visited a comatose friend in a hospital before her own accident and said she would never want to be kept alive that way.

Doctors started gradually cutting off Englaro's food and water Friday.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government, backed by the Vatican, put an emergency bill before Parliament prohibiting food and water from being suspended for patients who depend on them.

Englaro died at her clinic in northeast Italy on Monday night as the Senate was discussing the bill. Senators said they would drop the bill meant to save her and draft more thorough legislation.

"There's a will to urgently agree on end-of-life legislation," Health Minister Maurizio Sacconi said late Monday.

The Senate whip for the opposition, Angela Finocchiaro, said the center-left would cooperate in the effort.

The issue is thorny in Italy, a country where the Vatican still has some influence on the political class, if not on the majority of citizens.

The case years ago of a paralyzed man who had sought to die also brought the issue to the forefront of the political debate. But any efforts to pass legislation have failed and consensus remains elusive even within the same political bloc.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, who heads the powerful Italian bishops' conference, said Tuesday that "a just law is necessary for the good of our society and our civilization."

In recent days, Pope Benedict XVI spoke out several times about the dignity of human life, though he did not cite Englaro directly.

Proponents on both sides of the debate staged daily demonstrations outside the Udine clinic where she was cared for. Upon news of Englaro's death, the Senate observed a minute of silence. But immediately afterward, center-right senators started shouting "Assassins!"

"She didn't die. She was killed," said Gaetano Quagliarello, a conservative senator.

In a sign of how closely watched the case has been, state broadcaster RAI changed its programming to announce and discuss the death Monday.

Englaro's death grabbed the headlines of virtually all Italian papers Tuesday, with daily Corriere della Sera developing the story over 11 pages.

Englaro's death came sooner than some of her own doctors had predicted. Her father was not in Udine at the time of the death.

News reports, citing records from the clinic, said she had died of cardiac arrest. An autopsy was expected to be performed later Tuesday and Italy's medical board said it had opened an investigation into the anesthesiologist who disconnected Englaro's feeding tubes, the ANSA news agency reported.

Family lawyer Franca Alessio dismissed any possible speculation over the cause of death.

"That someone would want to cast a shadow over this dramatic event is shameful," Alessio was quoted as saying by ANSA.

The Englaro case has drawn comparisons with that of Terri Schiavo, the American woman who died in 2005 after a similarly heated debate.

U.S. Congress passed a bill to allow a federal court to review Schiavo's case and then-President George W. Bush returned from his Texas ranch to sign it into law. A federal judge refused to order her feeding tube reinserted, a decision upheld by a federal appeals court and the Supreme Court.