Italy Doctor Who Killed Piergiorgio Welby in Euthanasia Might be Charged

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Apr 3, 2007   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Italy Doctor Who Killed Piergiorgio Welby in Euthanasia Might Be Charged Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
April 3
, 2007

Rome, Italy ( — Authorities in Italy have opened an investigation of anesthesiologist Mario Riccio, who shut off the life support for Piergiorgio Welby last December. Riccio received international condemnation after killing the disabled man who had been campaigning for the legalization of assisted suicide in the European nation.

Riccio unplugged the machine that was helping Welby breathe. He then administered a lethal drug cocktail that killed the 60 year-old man.

At the time he killed Welby, Riccio denied his actions constituted an illegal euthanasia, which could net him between six and 15 years in prison if charged and convicted.

Italy prosecutors had asked Judge Renato La Viola to drop the case against Riccio last month saying the he acted within Welby’s constitutional rights.

But, the judge disagreed and Riccio is now a suspect in a "consensual murder" case which is described under Italian criminal law as killing someone with their consent.

"The judge ruled that this case can’t be closed," Riccio told Reuters in a telephone interview about the decision. "And now I’m accused, I’m being investigated for consensual homicide."

he indicated the judge will question him about the case in the next 40 days and he said he will attempt to explain how his actions did not constitute euthanasia.

Riccio’s actions drew condemnation from former Italian President Francesco Cossiga, who wanted him charged with murder, and from the Catholic Church, which refused to allow Welby’s family to have a Catholic funeral.

Welby, afflicted with advanced muscular dystrophy, had 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.

Riccio said the process of killing Welby took 40 minutes.

"Welby’s case was not one of euthanasia. It is about refusing treatment," Riccio said afterwards. "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.

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 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.

He indicated that Welby had 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.

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.