Italy govt. tries new tactic in right-to-die case

Rome, Italy - Italy's health minister declared Sunday there were problems with the clinic hosting a woman in a hotly debated right-to-die case, as the government appeared to be trying a new tactic to keep her alive.

Minister Maurizio Sacconi also said the "La Quiete" clinic in Udine isn't the hospice or hospital facility called for by the Milan appeals court, which has ruled that Eluana Englaro's feeding tubes can be removed.

Englaro, 38, has been in a vegetative state since she was in a car accident 17 years ago. Her doctors have said her condition is irreversible. Her father won a decade-long court battle to remove her feeding tubes, saying it was her wish.

But Italy's center-right government, backed by the Vatican, has been trying to keep her alive and hopes to pass legislation this week forbidding food and water from being suspended for patients who depend on them.

Englaro's plight has convulsed Italy, which has seen daily demonstrations and sit-ins by both those who favor letting her die and those who say that's tantamount to homicide.

"The Milan appeals court spoke of a hospice or a sanitary structure, while here all we have are rooms on loan," Sacconi said. "It's an irregular situation."

Sacconi has sent investigators to the clinic to make sure it is following a protocol outlining how Eluana should be cared for in preparation for the tubes to be removed. In addition, carabinieri officers visited the clinic Saturday and reported some "administrative anomalies," the ANSA and Apcom news agencies reported.

It wasn't known, however, if the technical issues raised by the inspections or Sacconi's comments would be enough to halt the gradual suspension of food and water for Englaro that began Friday.

The head of the clinic, Ines Domenicali, said the only anomaly was that volunteers were caring for Englaro, but said everything concerning her care was correct, ANSA reported.

On Sunday, Englaro's neurologist, Dr. Carlo Alberto Defanti, said her condition was "stable, and we are proceeding with the total suspension of artificial nutrition," ANSA said.

Englaro's case has prompted a rare institutional clash between the Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano, and the government of Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who has backed the Vatican's line that Englaro should be kept alive.

Napolitano refused to sign an emergency decree passed Friday by the Cabinet forbidding food and water from being suspended, arguing that it defied the Milan court ruling.

On Sunday, the Vatican said its No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, had a "polite" phone call with Napolitano to discuss the Englaro case. The statement added the Vatican appreciated Parliament's efforts to quickly pass the new bill.

For the second day in a row, Pope Benedict XVI made indirect reference to the case.

"Let us pray for all the sick, especially those most seriously ill, who cannot in any way provide for themselves, but are totally dependent on the care of others," Benedict said in his Sunday noon blessing. "Let each of them experience, in the care of those who are near them, the power of God's love and the wealth of his saving grace."

Englaro's father, Beppino Englaro, was quoted Sunday as decrying the intrusion of the church in the affair, saying that while he respects the Vatican's opinion, it has "nothing to do with this case."

"The church can say what it likes, I won't argue with that, but these events are beyond its control," he said, according to Spain's El Pais daily.

The father has issued only a handful of statements in recent weeks and has kept his daughter out of the public eye for years.

But in an abrupt change, he invited both Berlusconi and Napolitano to visit her at the clinic in Udine "to see how she truly is." That followed Berlusconi's comments about how Englaro could still recover and could theoretically even bear a child since she still menstruates.

The father has said Eluana visited a comatose friend in a hospital before her own accident and said she never wanted to be kept alive that way.

The Englaro case has drawn comparisons with that of Terri Schiavo, the American woman who died in 2005 after an fierce right-to-die debate.

Schiavo's feeding tube was removed in March 2005. Congress passed a bill to allow a federal court to review the Florida woman's case, and then-President George W. Bush returned from his Texas ranch to sign the bill into law. A federal judge refused to order the tube reinserted, a decision upheld by a federal appeals court and the Supreme Court.