Italy OKs living wills amid long-running euthanasia debate

ROME — Italy's Senate gave final approval Thursday to a law allowing Italians to write living wills and refuse artificial nutrition and hydration, the latest step in the Roman Catholic nation's long-running and agonizing debate over euthanasia and end-of-life issues.

As soon as the 180-71 vote was tabulated, cheers erupted outside parliament among a small group of right-to-die activists who saw the bill as a victory after several high-profile euthanasia cases prompted criminal prosecutions.

"Of course, we are still missing the legalization of euthanasia that we'll propose to the next parliament," said spokesman Marco Cappato of the right-to-die movement.

Cappato is currently on trial in Milan for having helped bring Fabbio Antoniani, a well-known Italian disc jockey known professionally as DJ Fabo, to Switzerland earlier this year to die in an assisted suicide clinic. Antoniani was left paralyzed, blind and unable to breathe on his own after a 2014 car accident.

A day before the Senate passed the bill, the Milan courtroom heard Antoniani's pre-recorded anguished testimony of how he couldn't bear to live another day, comments that reportedly brought even the prosecutor to tears.

The law's passage Thursday comes as the Vatican itself has taken up end-of-life issues anew. A series of conferences have emphasized the need for palliative care and reinforced Catholic doctrine, which requires only "ordinary" care be provided to the dying, not "extraordinary" care that extends life at all costs.

In a November speech taken by Italians as an endorsement of the pending legislation, Pope Francis repeated the church's opposition to euthanasia but also rejected the "therapeutic obstinacy" sometimes practiced by doctors even when the benefits of heroic therapies for patients are debatable, negligible or non-existent.

While church teaching considers artificial nutrition and hydration to fall under the "ordinary care" that must be provided to the dying, the parliamentary debate over the living will and its provision that Italians could refuse food and water generated relatively little Catholic opposition.

The absence of unified Catholic criticism was notable, given the Vatican had previously been vocal in criticizing cases of assisted suicide — most significantly when the Italian church refused to give a Catholic funeral to Piergiorgio Welby, a poet whose 2006 assisted suicide helped galvanize the right-do-die movement in Italy.

There was, however, opposition. Lawmakers from the center-right Forza Italia party voted against the bill, with Sen. Maurizio Gasparri saying it essentially introduced euthanasia into Italy.

Proponents said the bill merely entitled Italians to determine their own end-of-life care.

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