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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 December 2006, 14:32 GMT
Doctor 'helps Italian man to die'
Piergiorgio Welby in hospital - file photo
Piergiorgio Welby was paralysed and spoke using a computer

A doctor has admitted switching off the life support machine of a terminally ill Italian man who had lost a legal battle for the right to die.

Dr Mario Riccio said he had fulfilled the patient's legal right to refuse treatment. He denied it was euthanasia.

Piergiorgio Welby, 60, was paralysed by muscular dystrophy and his condition had worsened in recent weeks.

His plea for euthanasia - illegal in mainly Roman Catholic Italy - sparked a landmark court case and fierce debate.

Doctor's argument

"In Italian hospitals therapies are suspended all the time, and this does not lead to any intervention from magistrates or to problems of conscience," Dr Riccio told reporters, following Mr Welby's death late on Wednesday.

"This must not be mistaken for euthanasia. It is a suspension of therapies," he told a news conference in Rome. "Refusing treatment is a right."

Mr Welby had been attached to a respirator for the last six months and a feeding tube to keep him alive.

He had communicated through a computer that read his eye movements.

A judge ruled on Saturday that while Mr Welby had the constitutional right to have his life support machine switched off, doctors would be legally obliged to resuscitate him.

Euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide have been legalised in the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, but remain illegal in much of the rest of the world.

In September, Mr Welby had written to the Italian President Giorgio Napolitano pleading to be allowed to die.

Italy's Health Minister, Livia Turco, has called for new legislation to clarify the legal position on exactly which aggressive measures are licit in order to sustain life in cases like that of Mr Welby, the BBC's David Willey reports from Rome.

The Vatican teaches that life must be safeguarded from its beginning to its natural end.

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