ROME – A 38-year-old woman who ignited a fierce right-to-die debate that convulsed Italy and dragged in the Vatican died Monday just as lawmakers in Parliament rushed to pass a bill designed to keep her alive. Eluana Englaro had been in a vegetative state since she was in a car accident 17 years ago. She died Monday night at the Udine clinic where she had been for the past week, said family attorney Vittorio Angiolini.
"Yes, she has left us," the ANSA news agency quoted her father, Beppino Englaro, as saying. "But I don't want to say anything, I just want to be alone."
Englaro's doctors had said her condition was irreversible. Late last year, her father won a decade-long court battle to allow her feeding tube to be removed, saying that was her wish. In line with the high court ruling, medical workers on Friday began suspending her food and water.
But Italy's center-right government, backed by the Vatican, had pressed to keep her alive, racing against time to pass legislation prohibiting food and water from being suspended for patients who depend on them.
Senators who had just begun debating the bill observed a minute of silence Monday night when the news of her death was read out in the Senate chamber.
Government officials vowed to pass the legislation even though it was too late to save Englaro.
"I hope the Senate can proceed on the established calendar so that this sacrifice wasn't completely in vain," Health Minister Maurizio Sacconi told the Senate minutes after the death was announced.
Even if the bill had been passed in time, it wasn't clear that it would have kept Englaro alive. Alessandro Pace, constitutional law professor at Rome University, said the law couldn't have been applied to Englaro because of previous court rulings allowing her feeding tube to be removed.
Englaro's case bitterly divided Italy, with proponents on both sides of the right-to-die debate staging daily demonstrations outside the Udine clinic in northeast Italy and politicians hurling insults against each other. Pope Benedict XVI spoke out several times in the past week about the dignity of every human life.
"May the Lord welcome her and pardon those who brought her to this point," ANSA quoted Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, the Vatican's top health official, as saying. But he ruled out excommunicating those involved in suspending Englaro's food and water.
Italy does not allow euthanasia but patients have a right to refuse treatment. There is no law, however, that allows patients to give advance directions on what treatment they want if they become too incapacitated to state their wishes.
Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said he hoped that Englaro's case would become a point of reference for reflection about how to accompany "the weakest in the necessary respect for the right to life."
Citing records from the clinic, ANSA said Englaro died of cardiac arrest.
Opponents of letting Englaro die immediately called for an autopsy. "This sudden death, when just this morning the experts said her conditions were stable, is perplexing," said Dr. Gianluigi Gigli, a neurologist at the University of Udine who had supported the government's efforts to keep her alive.
Backed by the Vatican, Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government passed an emergency decree Friday to prevent Englaro from having her feeding tube disconnected. But the move led to a rare institutional crisis as the country's president, Giorgio Napolitano, rejected it on the grounds it defied court rulings.
In a statement Monday, Napolitano urged silence among all politicians, saying there was "space only for a profound participation in the pain of the family and those who were close to poor Eluana."
The Englaro case has drawn comparisons with that of Terri Schiavo, the American woman who died in 2005 after a heated right-to-die debate.
Schiavo's feeding tube was removed in March 2005. Congress passed a bill to allow a federal court to review the Florida woman's case, and then-President George W. Bush returned from his Texas ranch to sign the bill into law. A federal judge refused to order the tube reinserted, a decision upheld by a federal appeals court and the Supreme Court.
Rome's right-wing mayor, Gianni Alemanno, announced the Colosseum would be lit all night Tuesday in a sign of mourning for "a life that could have and should have been saved."
The Colosseum has become a symbol of Italy's fight against capital punishment. Since 1999, it has been lit up every time a death sentence is commuted somewhere in the world or a country abolishes capital punishment.