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Doctor helps gravely ill man die in Italy

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 22.12.06

Rome, Dec. 21 (Reuters): An Italian doctor said today he switched off the life support system of a terminally ill man to end a life he described as “torture”, after a legal battle for the muscular dystrophy sufferer’s right to die failed.

The doctor denied it was illegal euthanasia and witnesses said Piergiorgio Welby, who was paralysed but still lucid, said “thank you” three times to his friends and supporters before slipping away on last evening.

The doctor could face between 10 and 15 years in jail since euthanasia is illegal in predominantly Catholic Italy, and is banned by the Vatican. One politician asked for his arrest for murder and, while Welby’s death ended his suffering, it looked likely to fan an already impassioned debate over euthanasia.

Luca Volonte, head of the Union of Christian Democrats in the lower house of parliament, urged “the judicial authorities to arrest the man responsible for this homicide”.

Anaesthetist Mario Riccio travelled to Rome from Cremona to end a life that Welby had described as “unbearable torture” after other doctors refused. He denied he had broken the law. “Welby’s case was not one of euthanasia. It is about refusing treatment,” Riccio said.

At Welby’s home, in the presence of his wife, family and friends, Riccio administered an intravenous cocktail of sedatives and removed the respirator keeping Welby alive. The process took 40 minutes and 60-year-old Welby was pronounced dead at 2230 GMT, Riccio said.

One politician who was in the room said Welby’s last words to him were: “Thank You. Thank You. Thank You”. His sister Carla chided Italy for keeping her brother alive against his will.

Only Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and the US state of Oregon permit assisted suicide for the terminally ill. Welby’s supporters said the constitution gave patients the right to refuse medical treatment. “Welby got what he had been asking for 88 days, in full respect of his rights, the law and the constitution,” said Marco Cappato, a Left-wing politician and pro-euthanasia campaigner.