More MS news articles for July 2002

Italian Court Decision Stirs Euthanasia Debate

Jun 25, 2002
FLORENCE, Italy (Reuters Health)

Removing life support from a terminally ill patient is not a crime if it can not be proven that the patient was alive at the time of the act, an Italian appeal court has said in what could be an historic decision.

The Milan appeal court on Monday published the full text of a ruling made earlier this year that cleared a man of murder charges brought after he switched off his wife's ventilator. The court said "the link between the disconnection of the life-support machine and the death is not proven beyond reasonable doubt."

Enzo Forzatti, who in 1998 removed his wife's life-support system while brandishing an unloaded gun and threatening staff, was initially sentenced to 6.5 years in prison for voluntary murder.

But in April, the appeals court overturned the conviction on lack of evidence.

In her 41-page ruling, judge Maria Ocello emphasised that under Italian law "making the event of death come earlier even by 1 second is equal to homicide," but there was no clear proof that Forzatti's wife was alive when he disconnected the machine.

The lack of evidence referred to a 1-hour interval between the last monitoring of the woman's status and removal of the life-support system. Neurological death could have taken place within that time, the judge said.

Forzatti received a 17-month suspended sentence and was fined 400 euros for the offences to the staff hospital and for illegally possessing a gun.

Controversy over euthanasia flared in Europe when a British woman with motor neurone disease died after losing a battle in European and British courts to end her life with her husband's help.

On Friday Germany decided to reject the suggestion that the country move towards decriminalising active euthanasia. However, in May Belgium followed the Netherlands in officially permitting physician-assisted suicide.

The release of the Italian judge's explanations has also renewed the debate here.

"The state of death is not an opinion, which can be changed...In this way, judges take the place of doctors, and create a serious precedent and a dangerous judicial opening," right-wing senator Riccardo Pedrizzi told reporters.

But Dr. Roberto Anzalone, president of Milan Medical Association, said the ruling does not open large loopholes for euthanasia.

"They evaluated a single case," Dr. Anzalone told Reuters Health. In this specific case, there was a doubt of whether or not the person was already dead. However, it would be dangerous to generalise this case to other situations, he added.

© 2002 Reuters Ltd