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Is Italy set for a referendum on legalising euthanasia?

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By Andrea Carlo
Candles, photos of Eluana are seen in Udine, Italy, on Feb. 10, 2009, after the death of Eluana Englaro, 38, in vegetative state since a car crash 17 years ago
Candles, photos of Eluana are seen in Udine, Italy, on Feb. 10, 2009, after the death of Eluana Englaro, 38, in vegetative state since a car crash 17 years ago   -   Copyright  PAOLO GIOVANNINI/AP

Italy could be edging closer to legalising euthanasia.

A petition calling for the partial revocation of Article 579 of the Italian Criminal Code -- which de facto outlaws active euthanasia -- has garnered over a million signatures, passing the 500,000 threshold needed to trigger a referendum on the matter.

As a country deeply entrenched in its Catholic roots, euthanasia – a practice condemned by the Church’s teaching – has long been a deeply controversial topic.

If Italy's constitutional court approves the petition, there could be a referendum next year.

What is the background to euthanasia in Italy?

At present, Italian law does not allow for active euthanasia, defined as the deliberate administration of drugs by a physician to end the life of a terminally ill patient).

Article 579 of the Criminal Code specifically forbids “anyone [from] caus[ing] the death of a person, with their consent”, while Article 580 outlaws assisted suicide. The current penalty is six to 15 years of jail for the former and five to 12 years for the latter.

But passive euthanasia -- where life-saving treatments are intentionally withheld from an incurably ill patient -- is legal and enshrined in Italy's constitution, which asserts that “nobody can be obliged to receive a specific health treatment except if requested to by law”.

While Italy is a secular state, Catholic influences permeate all aspects of the country’s society and culture, thus having a profound – albeit weakening – hold on the public’s attitudes.

According to the Catholic Church – which directly addressed the matter in 1980 – euthanasia represents a “crime against God” and “life”, and an “intrinsically evil act”. This is due to the "sanctity of life" principle which lies at the heart of Catholic doctrine, whereby each human life is deemed to be sacred and inviolable.

“This throwaway culture has marked us. And it marks the young and the old. It has a strong influence on one of the tragedies of today’s European culture,” stated Pope Francis earlier this month, in reference to abortion and growing calls to legalise euthanasia across various European countries.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that euthanasia should be a controversial issue in a country where almost 80% of the population identifies as Catholic.

The Radical Party (Partito Radicale) – at the forefront of Italy’s socially progressive battles for decades – had repeatedly called for the right to active euthanasia, but without success. Indeed, a study from December 2019 showed that the majority of Italian doctors were against the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide.

However, public opinions on the matter have shifted over time, to the point that 92% of Italians declared themselves to be in favour of euthanasia in a survey from 2019, compared to 58% in 1997.

Furthermore, a landmark ruling by the Constitutional Court on 25 September 2019 – following the case of Fabiano Antoniani (“DJ Fabo”), a disc jockey in his forties who was left severely disabled following a car accident in 2014 and chose to die at a Swiss clinic three years later – has allowed for assisted suicide in certain specific and extreme cases, thus muddying the waters and setting a new precedent.

Credit: AP
Pope Francis on abortion and euthanasia: "This throwaway culture has marked us."Credit: AP

The case for Italy legalising euthanasia

Spearheading the pro-euthanasia side is the Luca Coscioni Association – which launched the petition on June 17 this year – alongside a variety of socially liberal and progressive parties, organisations and figures.

The association was founded in 2002 by its namesake, Radical Party politician Luca Coscioni, to campaign for the freedom of scientific research, particularly in embryonic stem cells.

Coscioni himself died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2006 at the age of 38, a year after a petition to revoke Italy’s law restricting stem cell research triggered a referendum, which failed to reach the 50% voter turnout threshold.

According to Marco Cappato, the treasurer of the Luca Coscioni Association and a former Radical MP and MEP, the success of the pro-euthanasia petition is a sign of just how strongly the issue resonates with the public.

“People, by caring for those who suffer, have directly experienced the importance of being free to choose on their life until the very end,” he told Euronews.

Cappato was indicted by Italian courts in 2019 after he assisted Fabiano Antoniani’s journey to Switzerland, although he was eventually acquitted on 23 December of the same year.

“The success of the Referendum Eutanasia Legale has been extraordinary,” he added. “It’s a sign that the public is ahead of the curve on civic rights and freedoms compared to politicians."

Supporting Cappato’s cause has been a string of celebrities and public figures, such as social media influencer Chiara Ferragni, rapper Fedez, anti-mafia campaigner Roberto Saviano, rock singer Vasco Rossi, and TV presenter Selvaggia Lucarelli.

Assisted suicide is a costly affair, with those wishing to leave the country to die in a clinic, especially in neighbouring Switzerland, having to pay approximately €10,000.

GREGORIO BORGIA/AP
Mina Welby, the widow of Piergiorgio Welby, the terminally ill man who died in 2006 after his doctor sedated and disconnected his respirator, listens to Marco CappatoGREGORIO BORGIA/AP

The case against Italy legalising euthanasia

Opposing the efforts of the pro-euthanasia campaigners stand the Vatican and a variety of Catholic and other organisations who have decried attempts to legalise euthanasia – heralding it the “defeat of mankind”, as stated by the head of the Italian Episcopal Conference, Gualtiero Bassetti.

“Euthanasia, and the referendum campaign which precedes it, is the denial of the value of human life in moments of extreme frailty,” Marina Casini Bandini, the president of the Italian Movement for Life, told Euronews.

The movement has been campaigning against abortion, euthanasia and IVF, alongside a variety of other social and ethical issues, since 1975, and has expressed deep concern at the prospect of a referendum on the matter.

Echoing the words of Pope Francis, she further condemned the “throwaway culture” which she sees as emblematic of contemporary society.

“People talk about self-determination, but it’s just a smokescreen,” she lamented. “It’s all part of a context of fear, ignorance, loneliness, a lack of aid, [and] a paucity of adequate responses to the real needs of the sick and their families.”

For individuals like Bandini, alongside many others in the Catholic Church - including physicians themselves - the primary emphasis should be on providing palliative care to those in need.

“When it’s impossible to cure someone, treating them remains a duty,” said anaesthetist Simone Pizzi, who supports law 38/2010’s call for palliative treatments. “We must offer the sick everything at our disposal so that their dignity can be respected and they can be free to carry on living."

Bandini concluded: “The real battle, despite its unfolding as a result of this long period of social and cultural change is to raise the value of each person, whether healthy or ill."

Will there be a referendum on Italy legalising euthanasia?

As the debate rages, the deadline for the petition's closing is Thursday (September 30). After that, the Court of Cassation will verify the signatures before the Constitutional Court checks whether it is eligible for a referendum.

At present, it seems likely that a referendum on the partial revocation of Article 579 will be held sometime next year, most probably in the spring.

Nevertheless, lawyer and constitutional expert, Marco Ladu – who himself is in favour of legal euthanasia – noted how the road to a public vote may not be as smooth as many would believe.

“We mustn’t automatically assume that the referendum will meet the Constitutional Court’s conditions of eligibility,” he told Euronews. “The proposed referendum question opens the way for the decriminalisation of the murder of a consenting party in any situation, which could thus be seen as lacking the necessary balance between the various constitutional rights at hand.”

While the petition’s future – and whether it clears its biggest hurdle in the Constitutional Court – is still pending, it nonetheless represents the biggest outpouring of public support for euthanasia in Italy and has undoubtedly brought the country one step closer to its legalisation.

Even more certain is that the ongoing debate – on an issue which rocks Italy to its Catholic core – is unlikely to end any time soon.