Thanks, in part, to the presence of the Roman Catholic Church, Italy has remained one of the least secularized countries in the European Union. At present, however, the Italian government, led by Prime Minister Romano Prodi, seems hellbent on irking the Catholic Church with its legislative initiatives, including its attempt to legalize homosexual unions and euthanasia, begun in early 2007.
An Italian anesthesiologist, Dr. Mario Riccio, has served as a catalyst for the recent push for legalized euthanasia: On December 20, 2006, he “helped” 61-year-old Piergiorgio Welby, a hippie poet and activist suffering from advanced muscular dystrophy, to die.
Some commentators drew parallels between Terri Schiavo and Welby, but there is a fundamental difference: Mrs. Schiavo did not ask to be euthanized, whereas Mr. Welby did call for the plug to be pulled, and the Italian doctor acted on Welby’s explicit request.
The method is always the same: A pathetic case is identified by the media, who profile it as much as they can to stir emotion so that the public will put pressure on legislators to repeal the old law and replace it with a new one. This is exactly what happened in Italy with divorce (1972) and abortion (1978). Urged on by the media, a fretful and outraged public demanded new laws to protect people who found themselves in exceptional and desperate situations. Then, after a few short years, the exceptions became the rule, creating today’s culture of divorce and abortion on demand. Inevitably, the same will happen with euthanasia or “assisted suicide.” Following the same moral reasoning as that of abortion advocates, mass killing will be extended to the elderly, terminally ill, and disabled and will be more and more frequently suggested as the best and most cost-effective solution to the rising costs of healthcare.
In the Netherlands, euthanasia has been tolerated since at least 1994 but had remained technically illegal till late 2000, when the lower house of the Dutch parliament made the Netherlands the first country to legalize euthanasia. In 2002, the required minimum age of candidates for euthanization was lowered to 12, and, in 2004, the loving option of “mercy killing” was extended to disabled newborns. Now, up to eight percent of infant deaths are reported to be infanticides performed by medical staff. The agonizing decision is made to relieve the “unbearable suffering” of those with “no hope of a future” or an inadequate “quality of life.” A similar trend appears to have begun in England, where, early last November, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology sparked a blaze by suggesting that doctors euthanize newborns who have severe brain damage or major physical problems. The suggestion came in a list of recommendations to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. By turning doctors into killers, euthanasia advocates are completing the revolution whereby those who should save life become those who take it.
Welby’s case took center stage last September, when he wrote to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, asking to be allowed to have his respirator unplugged. His cause was championed by Italy’s Radical Party (the same party that had spearheaded the divorce and abortion campaigns in the 70’s, and of which Welby had become a member some years ago) and the Associazione Luca Coscioni (of which Welby was co-president), which argued on Welby’s behalf that the Italian courts should recognize his right to “die with dignity.”
A court in Rome ruled in early December that, while Welby theoretically had the right to refuse his life-sustaining medical therapy, this right could not be exercised, because there was no legislation explicitly enshrining it in Italian law. Welby’s lawyers filed an appeal, insisting that, if Welby possessed such a right, he should be allowed to exercise it. The overriding consideration, they demanded, must be his desire to refuse treatment, because doctors have no right to treat patients who do not want such services.
The Catholic Church’s outright rejection of euthanasia had been hovering in the background, with Benedict XVI relentlessly insisting that life must be protected from conception to natural death. And the Church’s top official on health issues, Javier Cardinal Lozano Barragán (who heads the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care), addressed Welby’s case specifically, arguing that his request to die might be ethically acceptable if doctors had decided that the respirator was uselessly prolonging his final agony—which would not amount to euthanasia. “The doctors must say whether the machine that helps him breathe is useless or disproportionate and whether it only prolongs the lead-up to an imminent death,” he told ANSA (an Italian news service). “If the answer is yes, then the machine can be unplugged.”
Italy’s Supreme Health Council (CSS) ruled that the artificial respirator keeping Welby alive could not be considered an aggressive or disproportionate form of therapy. This was another blow to Welby, whose case had rested, in part, on the contention that the continued use of a respirator was excessive because his life had become a form of torture. Nonetheless, a few hours after the CSS made its ruling, Dr. Riccio administered sedatives to Welby and turned off his respirator. This prompted the CSS only to call for future guidelines for euthanasia, saying that new legislation was needed to regulate such cases and establish the line between necessary and excessive medical treatment.
Riccio answered the call of the Radical Party, which had vowed to help Welby. “We are ready to unplug Welby’s respirator as soon as he asks us to,” they promised in December. “We don’t want to be accomplices to torturers who are insensitive to his suffering.” In an open letter to the Italian parliament in November, Welby had said that Italian lawmakers had left him no choice but to carry out an act of “civil disobedience” with the aid of the Radicals.
After the deed was done, Riccio repented, saying he would never “assist” again, but the CSS’s show of impotence refueled the debate and further split public opinion. The Radical Party repeated the view that the anesthesiologist had done nothing wrong and called on the National Federation of Doctors to recognize this publicly. “Dr Riccio acted in full respect of the [physicians’] code of ethics. The federation is duty bound to come out in his defence,” a party emissary said, adding that it would be “mortifying” for Italian doctors if their representative body did nothing. “Doctors must see that their professional activity always respects fundamental human rights.”
mid the firestorm of debate that followed Welby’s “assisted suicide,” Pope Benedict XVI has addressed euthanasia, in general, and the Welby case, in particular, a number of times. In his World Day of Peace message this past January, Benedict cautioned that “abortion and euthanasia undermine peace,” and, on at least two previous occasions, he made specific reference to the Welby case. In his Angelus message last Christmas Eve, the Pope declared that, “In the God who makes himself man for us, we all feel loved and welcomed, we discover that we are precious and unique in the eyes of the Creator.” He said this just a few moments after Welby’s nonreligious “lay” funeral had concluded. “The birth of Christ helps us to become aware of the value of human life, the life of every human being, from the first instant to natural death.” His thoughts were still on this subject during his traditional Urbi et Orbi message on Christmas Day. “This humanity of the twenty-first century appears as a sure and self-sufficient master of its own destiny, the avid proponent of uncontested triumphs,” he observed.
So it would seem, yet this is not the case. People continue to die of hunger and thirst, disease and poverty, in this age of plenty and of unbridled consumerism. Some people remain enslaved, exploited and stripped of their dignity; others are victims of racial and religious hatred, hampered by intolerance and discrimination, and by political interference and physical or moral coercion with regard to the free profession of their faith. Others see their own bodies and those of their dear ones, particularly their children, maimed by weaponry, by terrorism and by all sorts of violence, at a time when everyone invokes and acclaims progress, solidarity and peace for all. And what of those who, bereft of hope, are forced to leave their homes and countries in order to find humane living conditions elsewhere? How can we help those who are misled by facile prophets of happiness, those who struggle with relationships and are incapable of accepting responsibility for their present and future, those who are trapped in the tunnel of loneliness and who often end up enslaved to alcohol or drugs? What are we to think of those who choose death in the belief that they are celebrating life?
The Holy Father reiterated his thoughts on the dangers of euthanasia on March 22, when he addressed the plenary session of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care.
During the renewed political debate over the rights of the terminally ill to refuse life-sustaining therapy, Rome prosecutors opened a file on Welby’s death and questioned Riccio. The doctor, who has so far not been charged with any crime, denies that he performed any act of euthanasia at all, since such an act is still illegal in Italy and punishable with a ten-year prison sentence. Meanwhile, those who provoked a nationwide debate by championing Welby’s request to die have begun collecting signatures for a petition demanding that Riccio face no legal consequences.
Riccio was cleared of wrongdoing by a medical panel in early February. Subsequently, on March 6, prosecutors recommended that the legal investigation be called off, on the grounds that Riccio had acted in accordance with the Italian constitution and international agreements, which give patients the right to suspend treatments.
Meanwhile, the debate surrounding the Welby case triggered a political response, with many MPs demanding new laws that clearly spell out what action is acceptable in such cases. The Senate’s health committee is currently gathering expert opinions on living wills, and a relevant bill is likely to be introduced in the Senate. This move will almost certainly ignite a fierce debate, since it will be viewed by many as an attempt to legalize euthanasia by stealth.
Meanwhile, pro-euthanasia forces have been attacking Church officials and Catholic teaching. As Welby’s stated intention in pulling the plug was to hasten his death, the action was tantamount to a suicide, and the Church had no choice but to deny him a funeral. Over a thousand people showed up in protest at the secular memorial ceremony held in Rome on December 24. Even worse, some leftist Catholics and even clergy leveled criticisms at the Church for Her “hard-line” stance.
Professing Catholics who parrot the materialist and Epicurean delusions of the left need to remember the Church’s teachings on suffering: Whether in this life or beyond, it is never “pointless.”