Laurie and Debbie say:
The government of Italy has narrowly escaped a constitutional crisis over the life and death of one woman–Eluana Englaro, who has been in a coma for seventeen years.
Doctors have confirmed that, after 17 years and with such catastrophic brain damage, Eluana will never regain consciousness or awareness. The anaesthetist caring for her, Professor Antonio de Monte, said: “Eluana died 17 years ago.”
As with Terri Schiavo in Florida in 2005, this has been a case where the next-of-kin and the medical establishment are arrayed against the government. In Terri Schiavo’s case, however, her parents wanted to have her kept alive, while her husband wanted to turn off the life support. In Eluana Englaro’s case, the Italian government seems to have intervened on their own. Englaro’s father and gravely ill mother spent ten years in court to win the right to reduce their daughter’s feeding-tube intake, and they finally won.
But that wasn’t the end. On Sunday, February 8,
… the country’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, after consultation with the Vatican, has issued an emergency decree stating that food and water cannot be suspended for any patient depending upon them, reversing the earlier court ruling. On issuing the emergency decree, Berlusconi declared: “This is murder. I would be failing to rescue her. I’m not a Pontius Pilate.”
Justifying his campaign to save Englaro’s life, the prime minister added that, physically at least, she was “in the condition to have babies” …
Echidne of the Snakes points out clearly what Berlusconi is really saying:
Who’s gonna impregnate her? Some rapist? Because she can’t consent, you know. Or were you planning to use her as some kind of a surrogate mother?
Because we’re both science-fiction readers, visions of women’s bodies as baby machines dance grotesquely in both of our heads when we think about this. Clearly, Berlusconi doesn’t place a high value on a woman’s participation in a pregnancy, to say the least. And his advisors at the Vatican also have some values we’d call pretty twisted:
Pope Benedict indirectly referred to Englaro in a message delivered to mark the World Day of the Sick, stating that society had a duty to defend “the absolute and supreme dignity of every human being” even when “weak and shrouded in the mystery of suffering”.
“May the Lord welcome her and pardon those who brought her to this point,”.
We don’t think they mean whoever caused the car crash back in 1992. Do you?
Aside from everything we both believe about dignity in death and the absolute immorality of thinking of a woman in a coma as a baby-producer, there’s also a visual point to be made here. All the photographs of Englaro show a beautiful young woman, smiling joyously at the camera. This image makes it extremely difficult to think of her as brain-dead, as truly not there any more.
After seventeen years in a coma, she was almost certainly skeletally thin, with contracted muscles, not to mention hooked up to feeding and breathing tubes. We don’t see those pictures. A Google image search on “coma” produces many pictures of people who have recovered from comas, and only three of people in comas. While there is no direct link between the physical changes of a coma and the reality of brain death, nonetheless the realistic visuals can make it more possible to grapple with the truths reflected by brain function tests.
It’s completely understandable to want to remember people as happy, healthy, and smiling. It’s completely understandable to want to turn away from what people in long comas really look like. At the same time, these polarized national debates about the supreme dignity of life are vastly skewed by contrasting the words “brain dead” with images of vibrant life.