The Italian Almanac

Piergiorgio Welby

Italian News - December 22

An Italian doctor said on Thursday he had switched off the life support system of a terminally ill man who died after losing a legal battle to have his respirator disconnected, but the doctor denied it was illegal euthanasia. Piergiorgio Welby, who would have turned 61 next week, had advanced muscular dystrophy, leaving him bedridden but lucid. His pleas to be allowed to die sparked an impassioned debate over the right to die which split predominantly Catholic Italy.

"Welby's case is not one of euthanasia. It is about refusing treatment," anesthetist Mario Riccio told a news conference. Riccio said he gave Welby an intravenous cocktail of sedatives, then removed his respirator. The 47-year-old doctor said he believed he had not broken the law but that he was willing to answer magistrate's questions about Welby's death.

Euthanasia is banned in predominantly Catholic Italy and the Vatican opposes euthanasia. Only Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and the U.S. state of Oregon permit assisted suicide for the terminally ill. Doctors who perform euthanasia can face up to 15 years in prison. But doctors and politicians supporting Welby said the Italian constitution gives patients the right to refuse medical treatment, and they had volunteered to remove his respirator.

"Welby got what he had been asking for 88 days, in full respect of his rights, the law and the constitution," said Marco Cappato, a leftist member of the European Parliament and secretary of the pro-euthanasia Luca Coscioni association.

Speaking via a computer that interpreted his eye movements, Welby had appeared on television news programs and wrote to Italy's president asking to be taken off the respirator so he could "find peace for my tortured and shattered body".