Page last updated at 21:06 GMT, Monday, 9 February 2009

Italian coma battle woman dies

Eluana Englaro, in an undated image released by her family
Ms Englaro opposed being kept alive artificially, her father says

Eluana Englaro, the Italian woman at the centre of a right-to-die debate, has died, the health minister has said.

Maurizio Sacconi made the announcement in Italy's Senate as politicians were debating a law that would have forced doctors to continue feeding her.

Ms Englaro, 38, had been in a persistent vegetative state since being injured in a car crash in 1992.

Doctors at a private clinic in the northern city of Udine had been withholding her food since Friday.

They had earlier said Ms Englaro might live for another two weeks.

The Vatican, which had described the decision to let Ms Englaro die as "abominable", asked for God's forgiveness for those responsible.

"May the Lord welcome her and forgive those who led her there (to her death)," Vatican health minister Javier Lozano Barragan told the Ansa news agency.

Senators debating the bill designed to stop her feeding tubes being removed observed a minute's silence when the news was read out in the chamber.

Ms Englaro's father, Beppino, had been battling with the courts in Italy to let his daughter die since 1999, insisting it was her wish.

Court ruling

In July, a court in Milan ruled that doctors had proved Ms Englaro's coma was irreversible. It also accepted that, before the accident, she had expressed a preference for dying over being kept alive artificially.

State prosecutors appealed against the ruling, but the Court of Cassation in Rome ruled the challenge inadmissible in November.

Vigil at La Quiete clinic in Udine
Pro-life activists have staged a vigil outside La Quiete clinic in Udine

The Italian health ministry subsequently issued an order barring all hospitals in the region from withdrawing Ms Englaro's life support, but this was overruled by a court in Milan on 21 January.

Italy's centre-right Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi drafted a decree last week to prevent doctors from letting her die, but President Giorgio Napolitano refused to sign it.

The government's move sparked fury among centre-left opposition politicians, who accused it of trying to exploit the case.

Ms Englaro was previously cared for at a church-run hospital in Lecco, but was transferred to La Quiete clinic in Udine last week, after it said it would receive her and allow her to die.

Italy does not allow euthanasia. Patients have a right to refuse treatment, but they are not allowed to give advance directions on the treatment they wish to receive if they become unconscious.

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