Italian Doctor Kills Piergiorgio Welby, May Be Charged With Euthanasia

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Dec 21, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Italian Doctor Kills Piergiorgio Welby, May Be Charged With Euthanasia Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
December 21
, 2006

Rome, Italy ( — An Italian doctor said on Thursday that he shut off the life support for Piergiorgio Welby, a disabled man who had been seeking the legal right to have his respirator turned off. The doctor denied his actions constituted an illegal euthanasia, though he could receive between 10 and 15 years in prison as a result.

Welby, who is afflicted with advanced muscular dystrophy, has been on life support since 1997.

According to witnesses, Welby said "thank you" three times to his friends and supporters before he died Wednesday evening.

Anesthetist Mario Riccio from Cremona held a news conference and said he unplugged the machine that was helping Welby breathe. He then administered a lethal drug cocktail that killed the 60 year-old man.

Riccio said the process took 40 minutes and that Welby died at 11:30 PM local time. He denied his actions constituted euthanasia or were illegal.

"Welby’s case was not one of euthanasia. It is about refusing treatment," Riccio said, according to Reuters. "Quite frankly, in Italian hospitals therapies are suspended all the time, and this does not lead to any intervention from magistrates or to problems of conscience."

Riccio said he volunteered to end Welby’s life after discussions with the pro-euthanasia groups siding with Welby.

"I got to know Piergiorgio Welby on Monday, we had a long talk, where he confirmed fully his will that the therapy be interrupted," Riccio said, according to an AP report.

After hearing the news, one leading lawmaker, Luca Volonte, head of Union of Christian Democrats party in the nation’s parliament, urged "the judicial authorities to arrest the man
responsible for this homicide," according to a Reuters report.

But Marco Cappato, a left-wing politician from pro-euthanasia campaigner told Reuters that "Welby got what he had been asking for for 88 days, in full respect of his rights, the law and the constitution."

Welby had lost a case in a local court to have his respirator turned off and to be given a drug to take his life.

Judge Angela Savio ruled Saturday that, while Welby has a constitutional right to refuse treatment, Italian law does not permit the denial of lifesaving care. The judge said the Italian parliament would have to change the nation’s law to legalize assisted suicide for the request to be granted.

Judge Angela Salvio ruled that Welby has a constitutional right to determine his own medical treatment but noted that Italian law requires doctors to maintain a patient’s life and not engage in actions leading to their death.

Physicians "even when faced with the request of the patient, must not carry out … treatments aimed at causing death," Judge Salvio wrote.

Meanwhile, a Catholic church leader reaffirmed the church’s stance against euthanasia and spoke specifically to the case of removing a patient from life support.

"Is the sole purpose only to prolong the death throes?" of Welby," Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan said in an interview with The Associated Press. "If the answer is yes, then you can remove the respirator. If the answer is no, then you cannot."

The cardinal added that Catholic teaching says food and water should never be withheld from patients.

The Netherlands was the first nation to legalize assisted suicide in 2001 and Switzerland followed in 2002. Switzerland also looks the other way as euthanasia groups operate numerous apartments where foreigners are killed.

Oregon voters approved assisted suicide in 1994 and the law went into effect in 1997.