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  • September 2021: Petition on euthanasia in Italy. Are the Italians less catholic than the Vatican?

In Italy, cultural-religious pluralism is evident not only through the proliferation of different confessions living in the same geopolitical milieu, but also through the rising presence of different ways of seeing and living religious belonging. For instance, the tendency to think of oneself as Catholic is much more widespread than is normally described by mainstream media. It would suffice to say that many Italians affirm to be Roman Catholics because they “feel at home” with the Church’s culture and teachings, but it is highly improbable that they would follow all instructions of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in their private and public life. On the other hand, an important part of the Italian law still remains grounded on the Vatican’s traditional view of Catholicism.

These diverging influences, far from being reduced, are even more accentuated in relation to sensitive matters such as those referring to divorce, abortion, same-sex couples, and end-of-life legal disciplines. The 2021 petition to reverse the legislation banning euthanasia is the most illustrative example of that.

This petition has now collected more than 750,000 signatures, enough to hold a public referendum under Article 75 of the Italian Constitution. The Luca Coscioni Association (LCS) for the Freedom of Scientific Research is the organiser of the petition, which is also the result of the 2019 Constitutional Court’s landmark ruling related to the case of an Italian disc jockey Fabiano Antoniani, also known as DJ Fabo, who chose to die at a Swiss euthanasia clinic in 2017. Marco Cappato, one of LCS’s leaders, helped Mr Antoniani for his end-of-life journey. When Mr Cappato come back to Italy from Switzerland, he went to Milan’s local police office where he denounced himself for having committed a crime under Article 580 of the Italian criminal code that penalised those who assist on the suicide of a person with punishments from five to 12 years of prison. After few mouths, the Penal Court (Corte di Assise) of Milan suspended the case and raised the issue of constitutionality before the Italian Constitutional Court (ICC).

ICC’s judges met on 23 October 2018 when they decided to reconvene on 24 September 2019, thus giving the Italian Parliament the time to amend Article 580 in such a way as to guarantee that lucid persons making a free and informed decision to suicide, but unable to carry out the act themselves due to their medical state, have a right to third-party assistance. Nevertheless, the Parliament did not take any action in this matter. As a consequence, on 22 November 2019 ICC issued its final decision: in the light of Articles 2, 13 and 32 of the Constitution, the physician-assisted suicide should be permitted in certain circumstances, including those in which a patient’s irreversible condition is causing “physical and psychological suffering that he/she considers intolerable”.

More specifically, in the name of the right to have a “dignified death”, ICC declared Article 580 of the criminal code unconstitutional insofar as it does not exclude the legal punishment of those who facilitate the fulfilment of the free and informed intent to commit suicide on the part of a person in such a condition, provided that the third-party assistance is made in the manner laid down by the Italian legislation (i.e. law No. 219 of 2017) and after consulting the local Committee on ethics. In the light of IIC’s decision, Mr Cappato was then acquitted by Milan’s Tribunal. However, ALC’s wanted to go even further.

It wanted to amend Article 579 of the Italian criminal code in order to legalise not only assisted suicides, but also euthanasia, which allows a doctor to end a person’s life by a painless means as long as the patient agrees. From here stemmed the idea to use Article 75 of the Constitution, under which 500,000 of the Italian voters may request a popular referendum in order to abrogate, totally or partially, legislation or a measure having the force of legislation.

As said before, ALC’s petition for using Article 75 of the Constitution has already collected more than 750,000 signatures. The procedure for conducting a referendum provides ICC’s control (the so-called eligibility judgment or giudizio di ammissibilità), but few doubts remain about the validity of the petition. So that, if the referendum will pass, it will allow medical assistance in dying for people who need and want external help to end their life and their own suffering.

It is important to note that both the 2019 landmark ruling and LCA’s petition have become the subject of fierce debate in a country where the Roman Catholic Church sees assisted suicide and euthanasia as the morally unacceptable killings of persons and violations of the law of God. In particular, the Church distances itself from the Constitutional Court’s decision, while viewing with extreme concern the referendum related to Article 579 of the Italian criminal code (see Nota della Presidenza della Conferenza Episcopale Italiana-CEI, 18 August 2021). Pope Francis himself has said that “we need to reject the temptation – also induced by legislative changes – to use medicine to support a possible willingness to die of the patient, providing assistance to suicide or directly causing death by euthanasia” (see Discorso del Santo Padre Francesco alla Federazione Nazionale degli Ordini dei Medici Chirurghi e degli Odontoiatri, 20 September 2019). “Medicine, by definition, is a service to human life,” he has also added to clarify a phrase of his predecessor, Pope Saint John Paul II: “[e]very doctor is asked to commit himself to absolute respect for human life and its sacredness” (see Enc. Evangelium vitae, 25 March 1995; see also Lettera “Samaritanus bonus” della Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede sulla cura delle persone nelle fasi critiche e terminali della vita, 22 September 2020).

All of this brings to mind other socio-political events in the history of Italy’s State-Church relationship, like the ones occurred in the 1970s and 1980s when the majority of the Italians voted to reject a church-backed proposal for repeal liberal divorce and abortion legislation. Thus, after the referendum on euthanasia too, we will be able to ascertain whether the Italian voters, including Catholics, agree with the Vatican or, as The New York Time said after the 1981 referendum on divorce, are less Catholic than the Vatican.

D 2 September 2021    AFrancesco Alicino

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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