Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Italian poet pushes the law on his right to die

Today's New York Times has a story about Piergiorgio Welby, an Italian poet who apparently has entered the final chapter in his 40-year fight with muscular dystrophy. His breathing is supported by a respirator and he may have a feeding tube (the article isn't crystal clear on this point), and he has asked for permission to have his respirator removed. Italian authorities have so far said no:

“I love life, Mr. President,” Mr. Welby, 60, who has battled muscular dystrophy for 40 years, wrote to Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano, in September. “Life is the woman who loves you, the wind through your hair, the sun on your face, an evening stroll with a friend.

“Life is also a woman who leaves you, a rainy day, a friend who deceives you. I am neither melancholic nor manic-depressive. I find the idea of dying horrible. But what is left to me is no longer a life.”

Now Mr. Welby’s long drama appears to be nearing its final act. Last weekend, an Italian court denied legal permission for a doctor to sedate him and remove him from his respirator. Fully lucid but losing his capacity to speak and eat, he is deciding whether to appeal or to perform an act of civil disobedience that will kill him.

The article says that Italian law allows patients to refuse unwanted medical treatments but is unclear as to the right of a physician to participate. That's confusing enough, but what the article says about the Catholic Church's position in this case is more so:
The church, too, has conflicting teachings about what to do in this case, and what the Vatican thinks has a deep impact not only on the nation’s political class but also on doctors tied to the scores of Catholic-run hospitals around Italy.

The defense of life is central to the social doctrine of the church, and so it opposes abortion and capital punishment. Only last week Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed his opposition to euthanasia, saying governments should find ways to let the terminally ill “face death with dignity.”

The church also opposes medical treatments to artificially prolong life, but several church officials have worried recently that ending artificial life support could result in de facto euthanasia.

“The problem is to know if we find ourselves truly in front of a case of an artificial prolonging of life,” Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, the Vatican’s top official for health, said in a recent interview with La Repubblica.
I had thought that the Catholic Church had long ago accepted that patients could refuse "extraordinary" treatments, even life-sustaining ones, and that one of the defining notions behind "extraordinary" is that the treatment merely prolongs the dying process. Granted, "prolongation" may be in the eye of the beholder, but Welby's death appears to be reasonably imminent with or without life-supporting measures and so it should be a relatively easy one for Church leaders. Or am I missing something?

Links for more information about this case:
posted by tommayo, 1:25 PM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter