ROME, Feb. 10, 2009— -- Eluana Englaro, a 37-year-old Italian woman who has been in a vegetative state for the last 17 years, died unexpectedly Monday evening in a clinic in Udine while the Italian Senate was still in session debating an emergency bill that was meant to prevent her death.
Doctors had begun suspending food and water for Englaro four days ago.
Eluana Englaro's father, Beppino Englaro, had recently won a decadelong battle through all of Italy's courts for the right to have his daughter's feeding tube removed.
An only child, she went into an irreversible coma after a car accident at age 20. Her father insists she had expressed her desire not to be kept alive artificially.
When Italian government authorities, in particular the health minister, contested the Italian supreme court decision to allow his daughter's feeding tube to be removed, Beppino Englaro took his case to the European Parliament and won.
And yet, the Italian center-right government, with strong pressure from the Catholic Church, would not let it happen and presented the president of Italy with an emergency decree prohibiting the suspension of nourishment and hydration in these cases.
President Giorgio Napolitano did not sign the decree and the government was forced to try to rush a bill through both houses of parliament.
While Italy does not allow euthanasia, patients have the right to refuse treatment. But there is no law allowing people to make a living will and thus establish their wish to receive or refuse treatment if they become incapacitated.
Beppino Englaro was able to provide courts with sufficient evidence that his daughter did not want to be kept alive artificially.
Even if the bill had passed before she died, however, it was not clear whether it would have applied to Eluana Englaro, whose case had already been decided by previous court rulings.
But the debate had already gone way beyond the person of Eluana Englaro -- she had become the symbol of a bitter political battle that divided pretty much along left and right party lines and had little to do with end-of-life issues.
If the debate in Italy was raging while she was still alive, it is seething with recriminations now that she has died.
In the Senate, at the news of Eluana Englaro's passing, Salvatore Quagliariello, a majority leader, stood up and screamed at the opposition: "She didn't die. You killed her!"
Another senator from the center-right tried to lay the blame for Eluana Englaro's death in some way at Napolitano, for not signing the decree.
"The signatures that were written and not written will weigh in this affair," he said.
Napolitano, in a statement today, urged politicians to be silent and said there was room only for "a profound participation in the pain of the family and those who were close to Eluana."
And as demonstrators protesting Eluana Englaro's death replaced the supporters of Beppino Englaro, who had been stationed outside the clinic in Udine where she died, the Catholic Church, which has had a heavy influence on the affair, reacted with dismay at Eluana Englaro's death.
"May the Lord welcome her and pardon those who brought her to this point," Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, the Vatican's health minister, told the ANSA News agency shortly after the news of her death.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said in a statement that it was with "profound sadness" that he learned of Eluana Englaro's death "and great regret that the government's effort to save a life had been made impossible."
The strong feelings stirred up by Beppino Englaro's battle and Eluana Englaro's death went beyond politics even.
Enrico Mentana, one of Italy's more prominent news anchors, tendered his resignation when his network Canale 5, which belongs to Berlusconi, refused his request for a news special on Eluana Englaro's death. Canale 5 broadcast the "Big Brother" reality show instead.
The case of Eluana Englaro bears close similarities, both personal and political, to that of Terry Schiavo, the American woman who died in 2005 after a similar heated debate over the right to die.
Although then-President George W. Bush returned from his ranch in Texas to sign a bill allowing a review of her case, her feeding tube was not reinserted, a decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court.
Eluana Englaro's death made banner headlines in Monday's papers and dominated newscasts and talk shows in Italy; the debate and the accusations are not likely to die down soon.
Rome's right-wing mayor has announced that the Colosseum will be lit all night today in a sign of mourning for "a life that could and should have been saved."
The Colosseum has become a symbol of the fight against capital punishment and since 1999 has been lit every time a death sentence has been commuted somewhere in the world.
In all this noise, it is Beppino Englaro's silence that stands out.
"Yes, she has left us, but I have nothing to say. I just want to be left alone," he told ANSA.
There will be no funeral for Eluana Englaro, just a blessing at the family tomb.