Doctors Decry Ruling in “Italy’s Schiavo” Case

Appeal for Reversal of Decision to Remove Feeding Tube

By Jesús Colina

ROME, JULY 28, 2008 ( Twenty-five doctors are appealing to Italian courts for the life of a 37-year-old woman who has come to be known as Italy’s Terri Schiavo.

Eluana Englaro was condemned to death by starvation by a Milan court earlier this month. The decision was a new development in a near 10-year court battle waged by her father, who seeks to deny her hydration and nourishment.

Englaro entered what is sometimes called the permanent vegetative state after a car accident in 1992.

Milan’s attorney general requested time to lodge a possible appeal against the preceding judicial decision.

Several associations and movements, including some that are Catholic, have offered to take over Englaro’s care.

The case is similar to that of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman who died in Florida after her husband won a legal battle to have her feeding tube removed. It took her 13 days to die of dehydration and starvation.

Voices from the scientific world have affirmed that the court’s decision in Englaro’s case is not to deprive the woman of special treatments, but rather of the fundamental right of every human being to eat and drink.

Some of Italy’s leading neurologists sent a letter to the attorney general requesting that the woman’s life be saved.

The signatories explain: “A patient in vegetative state does not need a machine to continue living. She is not connected to any socket.

“She is not a person in coma, or a terminal patient, but a severely handicapped person in need of special basic care, as occurs in many other situations of serious injuries to parts of the brain that limit the capacity of communication and self-sustenance.

“A patient’s nutrition and hydration, even if assisted, cannot be confused with medical treatment; they have always constituted the fundamental elements of care, precisely because they are indispensable for every human being, whether healthy or sick. The tube through which nourishment is received does not alter this elementary truth; rather, it can be compared to a prosthesis or any other type of aid.”

A person

From the anthropological point of view, the neurologists confirm that “the patient in a vegetative state is not a vegetable, but a human person.”

“From the neurological point of view,” they continued, “the patient in a vegetative state is not [in a state of] brain death, as his or her brain, in a more or less imperfect way, has never stopped functioning; he or she breathes spontaneously, continues to produce hormones that govern many of his or her functions, digests, and assimilates nutrients.”

The doctors also took issue with the diagnosis of permanent vegetative state: “Despite the fact that the possibilities for recovery are ever less with the passage of time from a cerebral accident, today the concept of permanent vegetative state must be regarded as surmounted and cases have been documented, though they are rare, of partial recovery of contact with the outside world, even after a very long period of time. Hence, it is absurd to speak about the certainty of irreversibility.”

In virtue of these considerations, the neurologists stated that “the decision on the Englaro case does not represent an intervention to put an end to therapeutic aggression or inadequate treatments, but the intention to introduce in our legislation through the judiciary, the absolute power of self-determination on the part of the patient — or in this case — of those who represent or believe they represent her, to the point of opting for death, when it is considered that life is unworthy of being lived.”

Finally, the neurologists regard as “inhuman the manner proposed to put an end to the patient’s life, via fast and thirst, with a slow agony that will lead to death through a slow devastation of the whole organism.”

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