Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

What a coup – Berlusconi and the Italian government come out against the right to die

It was without a doubt a media coup, when Berlusconi announced on Friday that he would be pushing forward a special decree to intervene in the case of Eluana Englaro. And, not just a media coup, for some.

 The Englaro case been in the media spotlight for months, since a definitive sentence was handed out by the Court of Cassation (roughly equivalent to the supreme court) in November 2008.

Eluana Englaro has been in a vegetative state for over 17 years, kept alive by artificial hydration and nutrition. Her father has appealed, for a considerable length of time,  to both judicial and legislative bodies to be allowed to suspend the artificial nutrition and hydration that keeps his daughter’s body alive. Before the tragic road accident that left Englaro in a vegetative state, she apparently told both her family and a number of friends that she would not wish to continue living in a vegetative state. On that basis, and in line with a number of articles of the Italian constitution, the Court of Cassation ruled that Englaro’s feeding could be stopped.

Ironically, though, the court ruling was just the start of another complicated and very uncertain process. First a structure had to be found that was both willing and qualified to accept Eluana, and put in place a procedure to allow her to die as painlessly as possible. This proved harder than one would have thought, as the  Minister for Work, Health, and Social Politics Maurizio Sacconi issued a controversial act banning all structures associated with the national health authority from carrying out such a procedure. An act that effectively ruled out a number of structures in regions like Lombardy and Emilia Romagna. 

Into the breach, bravely, stepped the a nursing home in Udine, which as part of the region of Friuli – thanks to Italy’s complicated regional arrangements – does not come under the direct scope of Sacconi’s act (an act, incidentally, for which he has been formally accused of intimidation and ‘violenza privata’ – an offence punishable with up to four years imprisonment).

And so we come up to date, when last week an ambulance transferred Englaro to Udine, and a medical team of volunteers prepared to start the procedure which will lead to Englaro’s death. 

Judging on his past record, few would have suspected Berlusconi to intervene in such a complex area. He has generally kept a low-profile on all ‘moral’ issues – not surprisingly, given that his party enjoys the support of a large and varied group of voters. Though Italy is in theory ultra-catholic, this has not always been reflected at the polls when dealing with issues that have a clear catholic teaching. Abortion and divorce being the two most famous cases, where voters rejected catholic teaching outright. Berlusconi has been keen, up until this point, to avoid offending any of his divided electorate.

In particular, he’s been quiet on the whole issue of the right to die – an issue that has been hotly debated over the last two legislatures (with the deaths of campaigners like Luca Coscioni and Pier Giorgio Welby). This legislature, in fact, has been at work on reaching an agreement for the introduction of the so-called testamento biologico, a legal document that one could sign revoking in advance your consent for various life-support treatments.

Quiet, that is, until Friday, when with impressive urgency he opened up what is seen by many to be a serious constitutional crisis. Berlusconi made it known that his government would seek to introduce an emergency decree to intervene in Englaro’s case – effectively over-ruling the highest court in the land. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, in an equally controversial move, wrote to the Prime Minister before the decree had been issued, informing him that he would refuse to sign any such decree, as it would be unconstitutional. Upping the ante further, Berlusconi has responded by saying that his parliamentary majority will then have to change the constitution – and in a hurry, as any delay endangers Englaro’s life.

Now it may be that Berlusconi is personally moved by the Englaro case, and with characteristic determination (and scant regard for the separation of powers, fundamental to most democracies) has decided to intervene. 

It may be, but it’s also clear that he has waited until the very last minute to intervene. This case has been building up since an initial ruling by the court of cassation was given in July 2008, and then appealed. The final ruling given in November signalled the end of the road, from the judicial side of things. And there was silence from Berlusconi. 

Englaro’s father has also pointed out that in 2004 he wrote to , amongst others,  the then prime-minister Berlusconi pleading for a political and legislative solution that would clarify Eluana’s case. Berlusconi’s office have denied receiving such a letter, but their denial rings hollow as Englaro sent the letters with an official receipt of delivery. He also, at the same time, received a response from the then President Ciampi.

So why intervene now, and in such a determined manner on a complex and deeply divisive issue? Because there’s little to lose and a lot to gain, and there’s no time to sit back and weigh up the consequences.

 On the electoral front the move will probably lose and win Berlusconi’s party votes in equal measure.  Dissafected secularists may take their vote elsewhere, but plenty of catholic voters will flock to his newly declared ‘pro-life’ party.

If Berlusconi wins the day on this issue it will be through a constitutional change allowing the government to over-rule the judiciary. That would, presumably, be the effective end of the principle of the separation of powers. Handy for a government with various decrees hampered by the constitution  – not least of which is the lodo Alfano, currently under review, which exempts the four highest office holders in the Republic from prosecution. 

If the government wins the day on the issue Eluana Englaro will remain attached indefinitely to the tubes that feed her, while Italy will have a new form of ‘democracy’, where the government is answerable to? Yes, that’s right, itself.

And what a coup that would be.