Italy’s constitutional court blocks right-to-die referendum

ROME — Italy’s constitutional court on Tuesday blocked an attempt to hold a voter referendum on voluntary euthanasia, passing the onus to legislate onto national lawmakers, who have long struggled to agree on right-to-die regulations.

Campaigners had collected some 1.2 million signatures for the referendum — well past the 500,000-threshold needed to hold a popular vote amending existing laws. The measure would have proposed changes to the country’s penal code on murder, removing penalties for those who fulfill the wishes of patients who have incurable illnesses or suffer intolerable pain to end their life.

But the court ruled Tuesday that the referendum was “inadmissible,” arguing that repealing punishments would not ensure “the minimum constitutionally necessary protection of human life, in general, and with particular reference to the weak and vulnerable.”

The court had decriminalized assisted suicide in a 2019 ruling, under certain conditions, if local health authorities and an ethics board approved, but it also urged parliament to introduce a law decriminalizing assisted suicide if the person wanting to end their life was experiencing “intolerable suffering.”

Since then, however, lawmakers have been deadlocked over the issue, prompting the referendum organizers to begin collecting signatures for a referendum on euthanasia. Such referendums have often been used in recent decades to introduce progressive legislation on issues such as abortion and divorce rights when parliament has been unable to find an agreement.

A proposed law finally reached parliament in December, but the parties in the governing coalition are still divided. A vote last week was postponed, pending the court’s decision.

Marco Cappato, whose involvement in an assisted suicide led to the 2019 ruling, called the court’s latest decision “bad news for those who suffer and must continue to suffer unbearable misery against their will.”

“I think it is even worse news for democracy,” Cappato said. “It would have been a great occasion to connect the social reality with the institutions, which are very inattentive on this subject.”

He added that he still “has faith … I think we are close to the result: legal euthanasia rather than the clandestine euthanasia that already exists in this country.”

Campaign group Luca Coscioni Association, which organized the petition, said it would not stop fighting. “The road to legalizing euthanasia does not stop here. The court’s cancellation of the referendum makes the road longer and more torturous. For many people, it means an extra burden of suffering. But the path we must take is clear,” the group said in a statement.

The decision was welcomed, however, by Christian democrats and conservatives who opposed holding the referendum. Pope Francis last week intervened to declare that “life is a right, not death, which should be welcomed not administered.”

Senator Paola Binetti from the centrist, Christian-democratic UdC party expressed “extreme satisfaction” with the court decision.  

The 5Star Movement — the biggest party in parliament and part of the ruling coalition — has supported the legislation that has been proposed. Its leader, Giuseppe Conte, tweeted after Tuesday’s ruling that now “it is essential that parliament immediately responds to the need to care for the dignity of so many people and so many families that suffer.”

But activists like Cappato argue the proposal has been watered down with extra conditions added, such as the need for the patient to experience unbearable mental and physical suffering, be on life support and refuse palliative care.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.

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