By Peter Popham in Rome, The Independent.co.uk
The heart-wrenching case of a woman in a coma for 17 years and the father who wants to end her life has been transformed by Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, with quiet but forceful backing from the Vatican, into an attempt to short-circuit the Italian constitution, enhancing his own powers.
Eluana Englaro, 38, suffered massive brain damage in a car crash when she was 21, leaving her in a persistent vegetative state. After struggling for years through the courts to stop the force-feeding, her father, Beppino, finally won the backing of the Court of Cassation, Italy’s highest court, last year. But Catholic politicians supported by the Church establishment fought on despite the court’s verdict and the case has turned into a battle royal for the “pro-life” lobby.
Now Eluana is in a clinic in the north-eastern city of Udine, where nutriments in her feeding tube are gradually being replaced by sedatives and anti-convulsants. But last week Mr Berlusconi suddenly tried to pass a so-called decreto legge, an official diktat, to oblige the clinic to resume the force-feeding.
The head of state, President Giorgio Napolitano, refused to sign the diktat because it “did not overcome objections that it is unconstitutional”. Mr Berlusconi was now balked by both the head of state and the highest court in the land, but that did not stop him. Instead, he announced his immediate intention of ramming a regular law through both houses of parliament within three days, to stop Eluana’s death by that means. He said: “In my view we must make every possible effort to avoid the death of a person whose life is in danger but who is not brain-dead, a person who is breathing autonomously, a living person whose brain cells are alive and send electrical signals, a person who hypothetically could conceive a child.”
The latter remark provoked astonishment and disgust; Mr Berlusconi seemed to be reducing womanhood to the status of a reproductive machine. More widely, the Prime Minister’s defiance of the state’s highest institutions was being interpreted as a calculated assault on the constitution. Mr Berlusconi has reawakened fears that he is set on greatly enhancing the powers of the prime minister, to the detriment of counter-balancing powers. Before Christmas, he told journalists that he wanted to move Italy to a presidential system, to give him “speed of decision making and greater powers”, in line with “other countries”. Now, his critics fear, he has found an ideal tool.
James Walston, a professor of Italian politics at the American University in Rome, said: “He has trumped the judiciary, the President and the parliament. If the Bill goes through, the Prime Minister’s office will be much more powerful because he will have seen off the powers that should keep him in control.”
But Gianfranco Fini, the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies said yesterday: “What is the borderline between a vegetable and a living being? I think only Eluana’s parents have the right to give an answer.”