By Hilary White, Rome Correspondent

ROME, December 17, 2008 ( – A high-level minister in the Italian government has called “illegal” the proposal to starve and dehydrate to death vulnerable patients in the care of the country’s nationalised health service. The news comes within hours of Italian media confirming that Eluana Englaro, known as Italy’s Terri Schiavo, was to be moved this week to a clinic that is willing to participate in her killing by removing her feeding and hydration tube.

Maurizio Sacconi, Italy’s Minister of Labour, Health and Social Policies, told a press conference that it is “illegal” for health care facilities funded by the government to remove the food and hydration of vulnerable patients with the intention of killing them. He referred to Article 25 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that says to stop feeding and hydration is discrimination against disabled people.

Last month, Italy’s highest appeals court, the Court of Cassation, ruled that 38 year old Eluana, who has been in a condition of diminished consciousness since an auto accident in 1992, could be killed by the removal of her food and hydration, a move that has been condemned by Church officials in this strongly Catholic country as tantamount to murder. Although media has consistently referred to Eluana as being attached to a “life support system,” she is physically healthy and not dependent on a ventilator and only requires assisted feeding and ordinary nursing care.

Sacconi’s announcement has opened a storm of criticism by libertarians who support the putative “right to die,” but was defended by Cesare Mirabelli, a constitutional expert and general counsel for the Vatican, who said, “This was not a rebellion against the judiciary. It is an act of a general nature, very articulate, exercising a power of the ministry to standardize the public and private activities.”

The legal controversy continues, with the president emeritus of the Constitutional Court, Antonio Baldassarre, who said, “The act applies to everyone, but not for Eluana.” With a specific sentence of the Court of Cassation the family has a “right” to kill Eluana, he said, although he admitted that doctors and the clinic have the right to “exercise objection of conscience.”

The announcement comes as a publicly funded facility in Udine told ANSA news agency that it is standing ready to help Eluana Englaro’s father, Beppino, fulfil his wish to end his daughter’s life by dehydration. The director, Claudio Riccobon, revealed that Eluana Englaro was to have arrived at his facility on Tuesday, but that the transfer has been “suspended” pending legal decisions.

“We have temporarily suspended the transfer until the lawyers of Eluana Englaro and her family prove that Minister Sacconi’s intervention does not affect the validity of the court rulings,” said Riccobon.

“We confirm our availability to accommodate Eluana. A team of 20-25 professionals from outside the clinic are on standby and will look after her on an unpaid voluntary basis,” he said.

“We want to operate in total respect of the law and the rules. As soon as Minister Sacconi’s measure proves invalid, Eluana will be transferred to Udine where she will receive the requested treatments for a dignified assistance [to the end of her life] in accordance with the decision of the court.”

The Misericordine (Mercy) sisters, the Catholic religious order who run Lecco’s Beato Luigi Talamoni clinic where Eluana has lived to now, have already issued an open letter saying that they were willing to continue caring for Eluana indefinitely and asking that her life be spared. This week in Rome, at rally of about 200, pro-life Italians, as well as some members of government, called for Eluana to be allowed to live.

Read related coverage:

Italian Nuns Refuse to Kill Eluana Englaro

Pro-life Advocates Rally in Rome for Italian “Terri Schiavo”

Italian Government Must Act Fast to Define Food and Hydration as a Human Right to Save Eluana: Prominent Italian Lawyer