Italy Faces ‘Dark Future’ After Passing New End-of-Life Law

The new legislation, which allows adults to refuse ‘ordinary means’ of end-of-life medical treatment in living wills, also contains no clause for conscientious objection.

Former abortionist and Radical Party activist Emma Bonino, center, reacts with emotion Dec. 14 in Rome to the announcement that the Italian Senate has passed a law allowing citizens the right to refuse artificial nutrition and hydration in living wills.
Former abortionist and Radical Party activist Emma Bonino, center, reacts with emotion Dec. 14 in Rome to the announcement that the Italian Senate has passed a law allowing citizens the right to refuse artificial nutrition and hydration in living wills. (photo: Giuseppe Lami/ANSA via AP)

VATICAN CITY -- Some Italian bishops have strongly criticized a new law passed last week in Italy allowing adults to decide in living wills to refuse end-of-life medical treatment, including artificial nutrition and hydration, calling it “unacceptable,” “reprehensible” and state-sanctioned euthanasia in all but name. 

Lawmakers passed the legislation, called “biological testament” or “DAT” (advance provisions of treatment) last Thursday (180 in favor, 71 against) despite strong resistance from Catholic legislators who had presented more than 3,000 amendments in an attempt to block its passage.

The Church teaches that artificial hydration and nutrition are “ordinary means” of treatment that can be removed to allow a person to die from a terminal disease rather than prolong unnecessary suffering, but should never be withdrawn with the intent to kill, or to prevent nature from taking its proper course.

A living will is a document allowing people to state their wishes for end-of-life medical care, in case they become unable to communicate their decisions.

“Whoever signs these provisions, which do not concern a person’s present condition but his future one, will sign a death sentence,” warned Virginia Coda Nunziante, president of Italy’s March for Life, in comments to the Register Dec. 19.

Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, founder of the Cardinal Van Thuân Observatory of the Social Doctrine of the Church, said the new law was “unacceptable” as it effectively opened the door to state-sanctioned euthanasia “in forms more accentuated than in other countries.”

Italy is facing a “dark future,” he added, one of “exhausted freedoms and deprived of hope.” He blamed a “libertarian ideology” that is “ultimately nihilistic.”

Bishop Giovanni D'Ercole of Ascoli Piceno called the law “reprehensible,” while Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the former president of the Italian bishops' conference, said the legislation “ doesn’t make me happy, it’s not a sign of civilization.” However, the Italian bishops' conference has been criticized for its silence in the run up to the vote.

Lower-house lawmaker and supporter of the bill Donata Lenzi argued that the new law “does not take anything away from any ill person” as it “recognizes that until the end you are not just a body to heal but a person with your own mind, your own ideas, your own convictions and you have the right to be heard.”

But Maurizio Gasparri, a member of the center-right Forza Italia party, warned the legislation is introducing “a brutal chaos that doesn’t cancel suffering but instead aggravates it.” He added that the law is “profoundly wrong from an ethical and moral point of view,” regardless of one’s religious beliefs.

During their campaign, the bill’s supporters used to their own advantage comments that Pope Francis made last month at a medical conference in the Vatican. The Pope said that while euthanasia or assisted suicide was not permitted, stopping “overzealous” treatment for terminally ill people could in some cases be “morally licit” and “acknowledges the limitations of our mortality, once it becomes clear that opposition to it is futile.”

Although the Pope was referring to the increase in “extraordinary means” of treatment, which the Church has always taught can be withdrawn if they are burdensome or disproportionate to the expected outcome, the bill’s supporters misrepresented his remarks to support their case, alleging the Pope was offering an “open door” to this kind of euthanasia.

Now the law has passed, Italian bishops are focusing their attention on the fact that the law does not provide doctors with the right to conscientiously object to a patient’s directive to end their lives in a living will. Bishop Francesco Cavina of Carpi has said this is a “serious weak point” of the new law, as it contains nothing about this right. 

"Certainly there is a strange contradiction,” he told the Italian Catholic daily La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana. “On the one hand it says it wants to defend the rights of the suffering people, while on the other it omits a cornerstone of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is, in fact, the reference to conscientious objection. 

“It’s a schizophrenia, that unfortunately we see more and more often, especially with certain so-called ‘new rights,’” Bishop Cavina continued. “Great civil battles are fought over them, but then space is reduced for freedom of conscience. It’s a short circuit that should give everyone pause.”

Coda Nunziante agreed that the lack of a conscientious objection clause is particularly “grave.” Doctors and Catholic hospitals, she said, “will be faced with the choice of either violating the law, or the natural and divine law.”

The new law will be officially registered next year in Italy’s juridical record, the Gazzetta Ufficiale, on precisely the fortieth anniversary of the legalization of abortion in the country, which occurred on May 22, 1978.