Italy’s constitutional court blocks physician-assisted suicide referendum

The Constitutional Court of the Italian Republic The Constitutional Court of the Italian Republic in Rome. | Krzysztof Golik via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Italy’s constitutional court on Tuesday blocked a referendum to decriminalize physician-assisted suicide in the country, citing inadequate legal protections for the weak and vulnerable.

The leadership of the Italian bishops’ conference welcomed the court’s decision in a Feb. 15 statement.

The court’s pronouncement “is a very specific invitation to never marginalize the commitment of society, as a whole, to offer the support necessary to overcome or alleviate the situation of suffering or distress,” the bishops said.

A petition with more than 1.2 million signatures requesting the national referendum was submitted to the Italian court in October 2021.

The constitutional court said it “deemed the referendum question inadmissible,” because if the referendum were to repeal the existing criminal law on assisted suicide, “the constitutionally necessary minimum protection of human life, in general, and with particular reference to weak and vulnerable persons, would not be preserved.”

The court will file its full sentence on the referendum in the coming days.

Both assisted suicide and euthanasia are illegal in Italy, where the criminal law says that “anyone who causes the death of a man, with his consent, is punished with imprisonment from six to 15 years.”

Besides the now-rejected referendum, a bill to legalize assisted suicide, known in Italian legislation as “homicide of the consenting,” will soon be put up for vote in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Italy’s parliament.

Before that, beginning on Feb. 17, deputies will vote on changes to the text of the law.

Pope Francis and high-level Vatican officials have made public statements in recent weeks about the Catholic Church's teachings on the dignity of human life.

At his Wednesday general audience on Feb. 9, the pope spoke about “unacceptable drifts towards killing.”

“We must accompany people towards death, but not provoke death or facilitate any form of suicide,” he said.

“Remember that the right to care and treatment for all must always be prioritized, so that the weakest, particularly the elderly and the sick, are never rejected,” Francis continued. “Life is a right, not death, which must be welcomed, not administered. And this ethical principle concerns everyone, not just Christians or believers.”

Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), sent a letter of support to an anti-euthanasia conference organized by Pro Vita & Famiglia and the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.

The Feb. 9 event was called “Euthanasia: a life to be discarded? The duty of society in the face of suffering.”

“In recent years we have witnessed the promotion, at the international legislative level, of euthanasia and assisted suicide, a fact that represents a true paradigm shift in the care of the sick in the terminal stages of life,” Ladaria wrote.

He said that the Church has always defended the dignity and the right to life of every human being from the moment of conception until natural death, citing Church documents including Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae, and the CDF’s 1980 declaration Iura et bona and 2020 letter Samaritanus bonus.

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“The Church’s teaching in this regard is clear,” Ladaria said.

The Vatican also held a webinar last week to speak about the importance of palliative care as a life-affirming alternative to euthanasia.

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