Italy constitutional court blocks euthanasia referendum

"Bad news for democracy" says Italy right-to-die activist Marco Cappato.

Italy’s constitutional court on Tuesday rejected a petition calling for a referendum on the decriminalisation of euthanasia, with the 15 judges ruling that it was "inadmissible".

Right-to-die activists had secured more than 1.2 million signatures in a petition seeking a referendum, well in excess of the half million threshold required to trigger a public vote.

The euthanasia petition called for a referendum to abolish a clause in a 1930 law that punishes the homicide of a consenting person with up to 15 years in jail.

The referendum would have proposed the removal of penalties for those who assist in the suicide of patients who have incurable illnesses or suffer intolerable pain and have already had palliative care.

However, in a statement issued last night, the court said that repealing punishments would not safeguard the minimum constitutional standards governing the protection of human life, "particularly for the weak and the vulnerable."

Marco Cappato, treasurer of the Luca Coscioni right-to-die association and a driving force behind the referendum bid, said the court's decision was "bad news for those who suffer and will have to suffer even longer", adding that it was "bad news for democracy."

Cappato's involvement in the assisted suicide of Fabiano Antoniani led the constitutional court to rule in 2019 that it is not always a crime to help someone in “intolerable suffering” to kill themselves, under certain conditions, including if the patient is being kept alive by life-sustaining treatment, suffering from an irreversible illness, and enduring suffering that the patient deems intolerable.

The court ruled that those patients must remain capable of making "free and informed decisions."

The constitutional court had been asked to rule on the case of Antoniani, known as DJ Fabo, a music producer and motocross driver left tetraplegic and blind by a 2014 traffic accident. Cappato helped Antoniani to end his life by accompanying him to Switzerland in 2017.

The court also advised in 2019 that euthanasia should be regulated by legislation passed in parliament, which continues to debate a law that would allow terminally ill patients to seek assisted suicide through Italy's health system and protect medics from any legal action.

The failure of lawmakers to agree on regulations in relation to euthanasia - a deeply divisive issue among Italian political parties - prompted the idea to seek a referendum.

Following Tuesday's ruling the Luca Coscioni association pledged to continue its battle to legalise euthanasia, saying the court's blocking of the referendum "makes the road longer and more torturous."

Enrico Letta, leader of the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) wrote on Twitter that the court's decision "must now push parliament to approve the law on assisted suicide."

His views were echoed by Giuseppe Conte, leader of the populist Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), who tweeted that "it is imperative that parliament responds immediately to the need to defend the dignity of so many people and families that suffer.”

Despite being opposed to euthanasia, Matteo Salvini - leader of the right-wing Lega which is part of the government coalition with the PD and M5S - said: "I'm sorry, the rejection of a referendum is never good news."

Giorgia Meloni, whose far-right Fratelli d'Italia (FdI) party in opposition is vehemently against euthanasia, hailed the court's "sacrosanct" decision to declare inadmissible "the referendum proposed by the radicals on the murder of the consenting person, even if healthy."

The court's decision to block the referendum was also welcomed by conservatives and the Catholic Church which in the past has condemned euthanasia as "an intrinsically evil act."

Days before the constitutional court convened to rule on the matter, Pope Francis warned against euthanasia and expressed his gratitude for palliative care.

Speaking at his general audience on 9 February, the pontiff said: “We must accompany people towards death, but not provoke death or facilitate assisted suicide.”