The Italian Almanac

Piergiorgio Welby

Italian News - December 5

A poll out Monday showed that more than 60% of Italians side with Piergiorgio Welby, a terminally ill man whose request to die has stirred the euthanasia debate in Italy. Of the 1,000 Italians who were polled telephonically about the Welby case by a research institute, 64% said his assisted suicide appeal should be heeded.

The poll appeared to show that Italians are more open to the idea of assisted suicide than parliamentarians, many of whom are Catholics and follow the Church's teaching that life should end at the moment of natural death. Welby, 51, suffers from advanced muscular dystrophy and is no longer able to move. He breathes through a respirator, communicates via a voice synthesiser and receives nourishment through a feeding tube.

He recently appealed to President Giorgio Napolitano and the parliament to legalise mercy killing so that he could "die in dignity". A group of lawmakers are now working on a draft law which would legalise 'living wills' but stop short of permitting euthanasia. Living wills, or biological testaments, are legal documents in which a person dictates patient treatment preferences in the event of an incapacitating illness, allowing him or her to reject excessive life-prolonging treatments.

In the meantime, the Radical party, a small group in the nine-party governing coalition which is pro-euthanasia, has vowed to help Welby end his life. The party began a two-day hunger strike on Monday to raise public awareness of Welby's plight. In an open letter to parliament last month, Welby said Italian lawmakers had left him no choice but to carry out an act of "civil disobedience" with the aid of the Radicals. "Despite my public request that I be sedated and my respirator switched off, nobody wants to take this responsibility. Therefore, the only path open to me is that of civil disobedience," he said.