By Hilary White, Rome Correspondent

ROME, November 14, 2008 ( – The highest Italian court has cleared the way for a young disabled Italian woman to be dehydrated to death at the request of her father – the first decision of its kind in Italy. In a decision released last night, the Court of Cassation upheld the ruling of a lower court that the assisted food and hydration keeping Eluana Englaro alive may be removed, thereby ensuring Englaro’s death by dehydration and starvation.

Englaro, who is now 37 and is not on a ventilator, has been in a state of diminished consciousness since being in a car accident in 1992 at age 20. She has lived with the assistance of a feeding tube. Her father, Beppino Englaro, has been petitioning courts to remove his daughter’s assisted nutrition and hydration since 1999.

In June this year, the lower court had ruled that doctors could withdraw food and water, a decision that was challenged by the state. Should Eluana die by court-ordered dehydration, this would be the first case of its kind in Italy. Legal experts have said that Eluana’s death would mark the first steps toward legalised assisted suicide and euthanasia in this once strongly Catholic country.

Earlier this week, a high ranking Vatican prelate said that removing Eluana’s food and hydration was “monstrous and inhuman murder.” Javier Cardinal Lozano Barragan, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care, said, “To deprive her of water and food means to kill her. It is inhuman.”

Today Barragan told the Italian daily La Stampa that the court had enacted “the first death sentence in Italy since 1946.”

“Life is sacred,” the Cardinal said. “The right to die does not exist. To stop giving food and drink to Eluana is tantamount to committing murder. It means letting her die of hunger and thirst, condemning her to a monstrous end.”

Eluana’s father, followed by the world press, has consistently described his daughter’s condition as “vegetative.” Cardinal Barragan, however, told La Repubblica, “The term ‘vegetative state’ is appropriate for plants, not human beings.” Eluana’s supporters have reported that she opens her eyes and is not in a coma.

The brother of Terri Schiavo, Bobby Schindler, also condemned the decision, saying that Eluana’s case indicates that the utilitarian bioethical thinking that resulted in his sister’s court-ordered death has taken hold in other countries.

“This court’s ruling seems to indicate that American ‘medical ethics’ are spreading like a virus among the international community, threatening countless numbers of elderly, ailing and disabled persons in an increasing and alarming way,” Schindler said in an email sent to

His assessment was echoed by the president of the Italian Movement for Life (MPV), Carlo Casini, who said the decision “puts at risk the thousands of other Eluanas, lovingly cared for by relatives and thousands and thousands of lives of people with severe disabilities who depend on the care of the community.”

“Ultimately it endangers all of us when we become marginal and ‘useless.'” The decision is a “sentence that has as its premise and effect of discriminating between lives more or less worthy of living,” Casini added.

The Italian Bishops Conference responded to the ruling saying it is a sanction for euthanasia, a practice that remains illegal in Italy. The bishops called on Parliament to pass a law that would safeguard the “end of life.”

L’Associazione Scienza & Vita called the decision a “real death sentence.” The group has asked to be present at Eluana’s death in order to record it on video, “as happens in countries that provide the death penalty for their citizens.” In this way, they said, “our children and our grandchildren will learn how an Italian citizen to was convicted by a court in a civil and democratic state to die of hunger and thirst.”

“The decision of the Supreme Court,” said the Association, “in fact authorizes the suspension of water and food that remain in our opinion, and even for a large part of the Italian public, simple sustenance of life and not therapies.” The decision means, they said, that some lives are not worth living and that the existence of a “right to die” that “is not contemplated in the Constitution” requires a corresponding “duty to kill.”

Read related coverage:

Removal of Food and Hydration from Italian Woman “Monstrous and Inhuman Murder”: Vatican Prelate

Young Woman may be Dehydrated to Death, Italian Appeals Court Decides