Human Exceptionalism

Here We Go Again: Italian Government Stops the Dehydration of Eluana Englaro

We have discussed the case of Eluana Englaro, who has been unconscious since an auto accident in 1992. Her father won a court order to remove her feeding tube. But for awhile, all hospitals and nursing homes refuse to participate in her dehydration. Mr. Englaro then found a facility that would, but now the Italian Government has passed a 60-day reprieve preventing the dehydration. From the story:

The Italian government today passed a decree to force-feed a woman who’s been kept alive artificially since a 1992 car accident, ignoring a letter from the country’s head of state, who said he will not sign the law.

A failure to intervene “would make me feel responsible for not coming to the rescue of a person whose life is in danger,” Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told reporters in Rome after a Cabinet meeting. Berlusconi said that even if President Giorgio Napolitano doesn’t sign off on the decree to make it binding, he will present the same motion as a bill in parliament and pass it in “two or three days.”

Berlusconi’s unprecedented action means Eluana Englaro, 38, cannot be disconnected from a feeding tube even though her father won a legal battle to have her treatment suspended. Italy’s highest court ruled in his favor Oct. 16.

The reporters sure showed their cards with the term “force-feed,” didn’t they? Be that as it may, this story is going to get very big. Important principles and values involving human freedom and moral worth are at loggerheads; the intrinsic value of life, the right to make medical decisions for loved ones, etc.

I am with the Italian government. Unless the patient explicitly stated in writing that in these kinds of circumstances they wanted no food and water through a tube, no one else should ever be able to decide that they should be dehydrated to death. Otherwise, we could easily see situations–and I am explicitly not saying this is the situation here–in which the patient is put out of the family’s or society’s misery. (This situation is not to be confused with cases of people who are dying and can no longer assimilate sustenance, at which time the intervention would be medically inappropriate.)

Standing against dehydration of people with profound cognitive disabilities makes some people very angry. They accuse those of us who take this stand of interfering with family decision making, being vitalists, pushing religion, and as the worst sort of busybodies.

But I see it differently. Dehydration is not like withdrawing other forms of treatment such as antibiotics or CPR since the outcome is certain: The patient is going to slowly dehydrate to death over about a two week period. And the symbolism of the thing is most pressing, speaking volumes about the moral worth and intrinsic equality denied to these people–since if you did such a thing to a dog or a jihadist terrorist, there would be a justifiable and righteous outcry.

So, I hope the Italian government prevails, although I am not hopeful. The judiciary today is mostly on the other side of the road, steeped in utilitarian “quality of life” thinking and justifying their decisions as “choice”–even though in this case Eluana isn’t deciding anything. Or to put it succinctly, I see the Terri Schiavo and Eluana Englaro cases as part of the coup de culture moving us away from human exceptionalism and the sanctity/equality of human life.

Update: The President of Italy refused to sign the decree so Eluana begins the long journey to death by dehydration today. More news as it happens here.


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