Blog Post

Italian Nuns Refuse to Carry Out Court-Ordered Euthanasia

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS Staff Writer

Last week the highest court of appeals in Italy ruled that the family of a woman who was left in a diminished state of consciousness after a car accident in 1992 can remove her food and hydration tube, thus ending her life. However, the nuns who run the hospice where the woman lives have refused to carry out the order.

Known as the “Terri Schiavo of Europe,” Eluana Englaro, 37, was involved in a car accident when she was 20 years old that left her in a permanent state of diminished consciousness. Since that time, she has lain in a hospital in northern Lecco, Italy, while her father, Beppino Englaro, has sought the court’s permission to disconnect her feeding tube.

Last week, a court ruled in his favor, but the nuns who run the hospice where she is being kept have refused to carry out the order.

In a letter published in yesterday’s Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Italian Bishops Conference, the Misericordine nuns of Lecco said, “Our hope, and that of many like us, is that the death by hunger and thirst of Eluana, and others in her condition, will not be carried out.

“That is why, once again, we maintain our availability, today and into the future, to continue to serve Eluana. If there are those who consider her dead, let Eluana remain with us who feel she is alive. We don’t ask anything but the silence and the liberty to love and to devote ourselves to those who are weak, poor and little in return.” reports that the Secretary of Welfare, Eugenia Roccella, said in a statement yesterday that there is “no obligation” for government-funded health care facilities to implement the decision of the Court of Cassation that patients can be dehydrated to death.

Legal experts say it is possible under Italian law for the sisters to apply for permission from the courts to be appointed Eluana’s legal guardian. Monsignore Ignacio Barreiro, the head of the Rome office of Human Life International told that such a possibility could be a real glimmer of hope for saving Eluana’s life.

“It’s more than reasonable,” he said, “that someone who wants to keep the person alive should be appointed the guardian, rather than the person who’s ready to kill her. You don’t have to have a doctorate in theology to say that; it’s just common sense.”

The Catholic Church does not consider the removal of artificially administered food and water from persons in an unconscious or semi-conscious state to be morally licit. The only time it permits the withdrawel of artificially administered food and water is when a  dying  patient’s body can no longer assimilate food and water.

Church officials in Italy have been very outspoken in their defense of Eluana’s life. Last week, after the appeals court ruling, Rino Fisichella, rector of Rome's pontifical Lateran University, told Radio Vatican that the decision was disastrous “on ethical and moral grounds as its condemns a young girl to death.”

He called for a law to be passed banning “all active or passive euthanisia in Italy.”

At the present time, Italy does not allow euthanasia using methods such as fatal doses of drugs but patients do have a right to refuse treatment.

The court decision also drew a swift rebuke from the Vatican, which said it gave “de facto” justification for euthanasia.

The family of Terri Schindler-Schiavo, who died in 2005 after a court order allowed her husband to withdraw her feeding tube, also denounced the ruling.

“Our heart goes out to this family as we know very well the profound affect that these types of injuries can have on loved ones,” said Terri’s brother, Bobby Schindler. “However, we must remember that we have a grave obligation to do all we can to protect those with disabilities, recognizing that a person with a brain injury is a human being with an inherent dignity and a right to life. This young girl needs only food and water and her family’s love to survive. At the very least this should be provided to her.”

Many Italian officials are speaking out in support of the nuns’ decision to uphold the sanctity of Eluana’s life. Giulio Boscagli, Assessor to the Family and Solidarity in the region of Lombardy in which Eluana lives, agreed with the nuns, saying, “The ruling of the Court of Cassation seems to have lost sight of the reality” that Eluana is not dead but alive, although currently in a “seriously disabled condition.”

The desire of the nuns to care for Eluana as though she is “a daughter,” he said, “is the right path, the path taken by all those who daily take care of people who are in a vegetative state or very seriously disabled.”

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STUDY QUESTIONS 1. What is the Church’s position on euthanasia, particularly on how it applies to patients such as Eluana? (See Nos. 2276-79 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church available here: )

2. 1. Is it morally acceptable to withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration from persons in a comatose condition even when doctors say they will never recover? (See the answer to question No. 2 in the statement by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith available here:

3. Some hospitals and ethics committees justify the cessation of artificial nutrition and hydration by classifying these interventions as medical treatments rather than as ordinary care. How does the Church classify the administration of artificial nutrition and hydration and why? (See No.4 in Pope John Paul’s statement on “Life Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State . . .” available here:

4. Should a human being in a state of diminished consciousness ever be referred to as a vegetable? (See No. 3 in the above document)

5.  When does the Church permit artificial nutrition and hydration to be removed from a patient? (See section IV in the Declaration on Euthanasia available here: )