A senior Vatican official on Monday weighed into the euthanasia debate currently raging in Italy following the death of a comatose Italian woman last week whose feeding tubes were removed.
President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Rino Fisichella, said that feeding patients is not a medical treatment but an inalienable human requirement.
"Food and water are not medical treatment,"Fisichella stated."
"Thousands of doctors and scientists share our belief that food and water are not medical treatment but an essential requirements for life which can never be eliminated," Fisichella stated.
While euthanasia is illegal in Italy, refusing medical treatment is not.
Fisichella was among speakers at a press conference on Monday presenting a Vatican-organised genetics conference taking place in Rome this weekend, entitled 'The new frontiers of genetics and the risk of eugenics'.
The death last week of 38-year-old Eluana Englaro, who had been in an irreversible vegetative coma since a 1992 car accident, bitterly divided Italians.
Catholics and pro-life conservatives upheld her 'right to live' while secular and leftwing politicians and members of the public upheld her 'right to be allowed to die'.
Englaro died on 9 February of cardiac arrest provoked by dehydration four days after her feeding tubes were removed in a nursing home in the northeastern Italian region of Friuli, on the orders of Italy's top court upholding a request by her family.
Prominent Italian politicians accused medics at the nursing home and the Englaro family of murder, while Vatican officials asked God to forgive them.
She was being fed liquids via tubes inserted into her nose.
"We need to distinguish between medical intervention when a feeding tube is inserted into someone's stomach and food and water, which we (the Catholic Church) do not believe are medical treatments," said Fisichella.
The ruling last November by Italy's Court of Cassation allowing Englaro's feeding tubes to be removed followed medical reports attesting that her coma was irreversible.It also followed court testimonies by her family and friends that before her car accident, Englaro had expressed the wish not be kept alive should she ever fall into a coma.
The Englaro case highlighted the current lack of legislation in Italy allowing living wills or advance instructions on the medical treatment people wish to receive should they become comatose.
The Italian government has said it will now introduce legislation on living wills. The issue is a highly charged one in Italy, where president Giorgio Napolitano has already received 280 living wills from Italians among 14,000 letters, e-mails, faxes and telegrams from citizens on the Englaro case.
At the time of Englaro's death, in an attempt prevent the removal of her feeding tubes, the upper house of the Italian parliament, was debating an bill that would have made it illegal for carers of people “unable to take care of themselves” to suspend artificial feeding.
The Catholic Church strongly supported such legislation.
Pope Benedict XVI has in several addresses condemned euthanasia. Other senior Vatican officials have upheld the right of all individuals to life.
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