Friday, 27 February 2009

Quick hit: Eluana Englaro

Italy has been riven recently by debate over the life, and death, of Eluana Englaro. She had been in a vegetative state for 17 years, until she passed away earlier this month:
The news of Ms Englaro’s death came as the Upper House of parliament began debating emergency legislation rushed out by the centre-right Government of Silvio Berlusconi. It would have ordered medical staff to restore all nutrients. She had been in a vegetative state for 17 years after a car accident.

Ms Englaro’s father, Beppino Englaro, had been fighting for a decade for a dignified end to his daughter’s life in accordance with what he and her friends have testified were her own wishes. At his request doctors at a clinic in Udine stopped feeding Ms Englaro on Friday.

...

The Senate interrupted the debate and observed a minute’s silence as a mark of respect. After the silence came recriminations. “She didn’t die. She was killed,” Gaetano Quagliarello, a centre-right senator, shouted, while others screamed “murderers, murderers” towards the Opposition benches.

Mr Berlusconi’s law would make it illegal for carers of people “unable to take care of themselves” to suspend artificial feeding. Euthanasia is illegal in Italy but refusing treatment is not.

...

For the third day in succession Pope Benedict XVI referred indirectly to the case, declaring yesterday that “the sanctity of life must be safeguarded from conception to its natural end”.

...

Ms Englaro was called “Italy’s Terri Schiavo”, in reference to the American woman in a vegetative state who was allowed to die in 2005 after a long legal fight. Mr Englaro battled his way through Italy’s courts for ten years to have her feeding tube disconnected, saying that it was her wish not to be kept alive artificially.

Rome’s right-wing mayor, Gianni Alemanno, announced that the Colosseum would be lit all night in a sign of mourning for “a life that could have and should have been saved”.

Click through for more.

One of the main arguments for keeping Englaro alive was Berlusconi's claim that she was "in the condition to have babies". (Mortarboard tipped to Pharyngula for the Guardian link). I find this so appalling that I can't find the words to express it fully. Euthanasia is a tricky area, and personally I tend to change my mind on it every few years because I find it so hard. But to argue that someone who has been in a coma for 17 years should be kept alive because she is biologically capable of conceiving a child (and how precisely does she consent to that from a vegetative state?) astounds me. Talk about reducing a woman to just a reproductive machine.

Big thanks to reader Giovanni for bringing this to our attention via our Facebook group.

11 comments:

Anna said...

Consent? Mere details.

I'm really glad you wrote about this, Julie - I'm pro-euthanasia, and hoping to see it on the legislative agenda again soon. I acknowledge, though, that's there's a difference between a lucid person determining their right to die, and determining that on behalf of someone who is not able to do it for herself.

There's also some important practical stuff around euthanasia to be considered. A person's decision shouldn't be influenced by the fact they're receiving substandard paliative care, for example.

I think it's kind of odd to draw a distinction in this case between withdrawing the means of life (ie food, in this case), and simply giving someone an overdose that will actively end their life - the latter option seems more humane, and the moral culpability for the death of the person looks the same either way to me.

The Pope has managed to define 'life' in a rather narrow way that doesn't take into account quality of life - either for Eluana Englaro, or the family caring for her.

Giovanni said...

Thank you for posting this, Julie. I am still far too angry to express myself coherently about it, but I think an aspect that was under-represented in the endless discussions during and after her death is the extent in which anti-women sentiments bubbled under the surface of the pro-life rhetoric. And this was never really a euthanasia case - forced feeding as noted is not compulsory - but rather one of publicly mandated torture, of Eluana and of her family. When Beppino, her father, pleaded for the politicians to come and see her daughter (unlike in Schiavo's case, no photographs of her circulated other than a lovely one taken before the accident), Berlusconi responded that he was unable to but understood that she was "looking good". That was said on the same day as the "she could have babies" remark, if memory serves, and made me just as angry.

My mother phoned me in tears when Eluana finally died, and they were tears of relief. It is hard to convey the despicable sentiments and the intimidation, the violence visited upon this defenceless woman's body.

Anna said...

Giovanni, that makes me deeply sad. I'd never really thought about what a long period in a vegetative state would do to a person, but certainly it would be very unpleasant. Seeing your child like that would be heartbeaking - particularly if you knew they would not have wished to be kept 'alive' in that state. And most people wouldn't want to be.

LS1 said...

It's odd, isn't it, that children are considered legally dependant on their parents/legal guardians. If children are starved to death, the parents are culpable. Yet, here is an adult who is completely reliant on others for their existence being starved to death.

Berlusconi is an idiot: there is no difference between witholding food and injecting the comatose patient with a lethal dose: they are both the same in their effect.

I am pro-euthanasia and always have been. I find it staggering the woolly thinking some people engage around this debate, with ostensibly the intention of being "kind".

LS1 said...

Oh, and of course, the 'having babies' thing is staggering, but then I can't say I am surprised at the comment.

Julie said...

I haven't been following this as Giovanni has, but I can make a pretty good guess at some of the anti-woman stuff, eg referring to Englaro as a girl frequently? Probably talking up her "innocence"? (As if it were relevant at all.)

Most of my concerns about euthanasia are how we put in sufficient safeguards. But (almost) my worst nightmare would be being shut in, suffering pain, and watching my family torn apart by arguing over whether I should be allowed to die or not.

Giovanni said...

I haven't been following this as Giovanni has, but I can make a pretty good guess at some of the anti-woman stuff, eg referring to Englaro as a girl frequently? Probably talking up her "innocence"? (As if it were relevant at all.)

No, something running a bit deeper and having to do with the Christian collective psyche and the role of the woman as sufferer and person, body under tutelage. It may of course be a coincidence that Terry Schiavo and Eluana Englaro were both women, but I don't think so - in both cases it was far too convenient that the debate should be played out over a woman's body.

Anna said...

Could you elaborate on that, Giovanni? I'm very interested - I've never really thought through the gendered aspect of Christian (esp Catholic) attitudes to suffering. I find them fascinating - sometimes they resonate with me, and sometimes I find them repugnant. The pain of childbirth being a consequence of the Fall for women particularly irks me - it seems downright sadistic.

Anna said...

Where are you Meurk? I'd love your two cents' worth! ;-)

Giovanni said...

Could you elaborate on that, Giovanni? I'm very interested - I've never really thought through the gendered aspect of Christian (esp Catholic) attitudes to suffering. I find them fascinating - sometimes they resonate with me, and sometimes I find them repugnant. The pain of childbirth being a consequence of the Fall for women particularly irks me - it seems downright sadistic.

I can’t say I’ve ever found the idea of the cleansing value of suffering very compelling, although to be fair they jumped at the chance of making the last Pope a Christ-like figure too. But women cop it in a variety of ways, having to do with the religion’s peculiar inability to deal with sex and fertility - it used to be that if you happened to die while menstruating you wouldn’t be buried in consecrated land - and the duty to bear children and, yes, bear them painfully. The debate about abortion has always been - at least in Italy - as much about control of the female body as the sanctity of life, weeping for the little unborn child angle. And, not unrelatedly, a woman had to always be working. My mother remembers how she was reading alongside her mother one day when nonna was well into her seventies and she asked my mum to pull the curtains, so that the people in the street wouldn’t see two women being idle. She had of course worked since she was a little girl.

Suffering, passivity, being spoken for by others, obeying father and husband, working without pay or in the case of nuns marrying Christ and devoting their lives to silence and good deeds - that’s pretty much a woman’s lot for Catholics, and still largely in Italian society at large since of course it’s not as if renouncing religion means switching off a whole raft of pretty well ingrained cultural attitudes. Occasionally a woman like Eluana needs to be made an example of so others won’t get ideas.

Anna said...

That's just plain awful.

My Nana was deeply Catholic, and suffered from severe arthritis, which left her bedridden and incapacitated for big chunks of her life, from her 30s onwards. Her views on suffering both inspired her work as a nurse (she was apparently a very talented and committed one, when she was able to work), and helped her deal psychologically with the pain and the limitations it put on her life.

However, her life was not lead with the expectation that she would work herself to the bone for other people because she was a woman ... :-(