Doctor helps Italian euthanasia activist to die- Conservatives seek arrest after doctor removes respirator
By Ian Fisher
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: December 21, 2006
ROME: Piergiorgio Welby, who had eloquently begged Italy's leaders to let him end his life legally, died late Wednesday after a doctor sedated him and removed the respirator that had kept him alive for the last nine years.
But Welby, 60, an activist for euthanasia who suffered from muscular dystrophy for 40 years, died without the legal clarity he hoped to achieve. His decision to be removed from the respirator seemed a final challenge, which was quickly taken up in this Roman Catholic country with a deep institutional opposition to euthanasia.
Hours after his death was announced Thursday, conservative lawmakers demanded the doctor's arrest.
Luca Volonte, leader of the small Christian Democratic Party, which has strong ties to the Vatican, said that the death "cannot go unpunished, if only because it was committed in such a violent, scandalous and exploitative way."
He and others have accused the Radical Party of turning Welby's request to die into a political campaign on behalf of euthanasia and other choices for the sick to end their own lives.
Such a campaign was clearly the intent of Welby, who had strong ties to the party: Its leaders were present at his death and oversaw its announcement here Thursday, nearly three months after he sent an impassioned letter to Italy's president, Giorgio Napolitano, asking for greater rights for the terminally ill to end their lives.
Despite the calls for his arrest, the doctor, Mario Riccio, an anesthesiologist, said he was "serene" that he would not be prosecuted.
"The case of Piergiorgio Welby is not a case of euthanasia," he told reporters here. "It's a case of refusing treatment."
"It's not an exception that treatment is suspended," he said. "It happens every day," he said, if quietly and without the public attention of Welby's case.
In the weeks before he died, Welby had sought a judicial ruling that would clarify Italy's contradictory laws regarding unwanted medical treatment and allow him to die as he wished.
Direct forms of euthanasia, such as doctor-assisted suicide, are illegal in Italy. But the law allows patients, other than those with psychiatric problems and infectious diseases, to decline treatment they do not want.
Experts say, however, the law does not allow anyone to assist in a death, even by consent. Two recent legal decisions on Welby's case questioned the legality of a doctor's detaching life support, while upholding Welby's right to decline treatment.
Some experts said that Welby had the chance to appeal the rulings, but in the end, decided to die amid the legal ambiguity. Several weeks ago he said his medical treatment was an increasing "torture."
Welby, a poet who wrote thousands of blog entries on the rights of the terminally ill until a recent decline in his condition, died at his home in Rome at 11:30 p.m., Dr. Riccio said.
The doctor said that some 40 minutes before, he had injected Welby with sedatives, then at an unspecified time before his death, stopped the respirator. The cause of death, he said, was cardio- respiratory failure.
Welby died surrounded by his wife, Mina, who cared for him for years, other family and members of the Radical Party who had kept his case on the front pages of newspapers for months.
At the news conference, his sister Carla described herself as not interested in politics, yet she challenged Italy's leaders to "change very quickly" on cases like her brother's.
"I will say only that maybe no one understands what a weight it has been for us these 89 days," since Welby made his appeal to Italy's president, she said, "and how determined my brother was in what he was asking."
Emma Bonino, a Radical Party leader and minister in the center-left government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi, issued a more direct political appeal on behalf of stronger laws allowing sick patients to die. She criticized what she called the inaction of Italy's politicians on the issue.
"Piergiorgio Welby did not invent a phenomenon," she said. "He gave a voice to a reality — voice, body, suffering — to a reality that exists, and to which it is more simple, if more cruel, to close one's eyes."
Many political experts say that it is most unlikely that Italy would join Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland in Europe in legalizing more direct forms of euthanasia. (In the United States, Oregon allows doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients who request it).
The Roman Catholic Church, which strongly opposes euthanasia, holds great influence among politicians and provides much medical care around Italy. The debate over Welby's case has, however, prompted a serious debate in Parliament over living wills, which would allow Italians to specify what medical treatment they would accept.