Italian poet Piergiorgio Welby, who has been suffering from muscular dystrophy for nearly 40 years, was taken off his respirator today in defiance of Italian court rulings and the Vatican. Welby, who had been attached to a respirator for 9 years, asked the Italian court to let doctors disconnect him (since, after all, he could no longer move). The court ruled that this would be euthanasia and doctors who participate in it could be sent to prison for up to 15 years.
The Vatican opposed disconnecting Welby because doing so might constitute euthanasia. But as the New York Times points out:
The church also opposes medical treatments to artificially prolong life, but several church officials have worried recently that ending artificial life support could result in de facto euthanasia.
"The problem is to know if we find ourselves truly in front of a case of an artificial prolonging of life," Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, the Vatican's top official for health, said in a recent interview with La Repubblica.
I find this cruelty in the name of religious dogma infuriating. If being kept alive by means of a feeding tube and a respirator is not artificial, what is? A point that Welby himself powerfully made:
"What is natural about a hole in the belly and a pump that fills it with fats and proteins?" he wrote in his letter to the president [of Italy]. The letter was delivered with a video of Mr. Welby in his bed at his home in Rome attached in silence to the respirator, with a laptop at his bedside reading his words in a spooky synthesized voice.
"What is natural about a hole in the windpipe and a pump that blows air into the lungs?" he wrote. "What is natural about a body kept biologically functional with the help of artificial respirators, artificial feed, artificial hydration, artificial intestinal emptying, of death artificially postponed?"
The beginning and end of life are where differences in religious beliefs become acute. Toleration of these differences is what makes living peaceably together in civil society possible.
As I've written before, I am personally conflicted about state sanctioned physician assisted suicide because I fear that the state may one day begin mandating that people be helped off this mortal coil. Increasingly advances in medicine force patients, families and physicians to make end-of-life decisions that nature once made for them. There is no perfect formula for making those decisions, but it is best that they be made informally by patients, families and physicians. The fact that the state can prosecute after the fact should deter most abuses. Again, not perfect, but the best that fallible humans can do.
Rest in peace Piergiorgio Welby.