May 16, 2022

Italian euthanasia referendum sunk by Constitutional Court

The Italian Constitutional Court blocked a proposal for a national referendum on the right to die this week.  

The leading lobby group, Associazione Luca Coscioni, tweeted defiantly, “The path towards the legalization of euthanasia will not cease. The cancellation of the referendum instrument by the [Court] will make the path longer and more tortuous; for many people it will mean an additional burden of suffering. But the road ahead is clear.”

Euthanasia will continue to be a very live issue in Italy. Crux reports that in 2019 the Court “partially decriminalized assisted suicide under certain conditions, requiring local health authorities and an ethics board to approve each request, yet they ruled at the same time that parliament should pass a law regulating the practice.”

Supporters of euthanasia organised a petition for a referendum last year which gathered 1.4 million signatures, even though only 500,000 were needed. Another proposal, to legalise cannabis, only attracted 630,000 signatures. (It, too, was knocked by the Court.)

The Court issued a terse press release outlining its reasons for quashing the euthanasia referendum. It declared that “the constitutionally necessary minimum protection of human life, in general, and with particular reference to weak and vulnerable persons, would not be preserved.”

Popular referendums in Italy operate under guidelines which make it very difficult for them to pass. Most fail.

First, voters cannot propose a law, as, say, in California. They can only abolish a law, either totally or partially. In this case, they were being asked to approve an edited version of the current statute. The text of Article 579 of the Criminal Code about assisted suicide would be altered by blue-pencilling the words detailing the penalties. This effect of striking out these words is that helping to kill a person would no longer be a crime, unless the person could not give informed consent.

Second, the threshold for approval is a majority of the eligible voters – not a majority of the number of votes. In the past, referendums have been lost simply because the opposition boycotted them.

If the Constitutional Court had approved the referendum, and if the referendum had gone ahead, and if supporters of euthanasia had won, there would have been effectively no law governing the right to die at all. Murder with consent would no longer have been a crime.  

A bill to permit assisted suicide, the “Bazoli Consolidated Text” is being discussed in the Italian Parliament.

Antonio Brandi, president of Pro Vita & Famiglia, which opposes “assisted dying”, declared that the bill “had a clear euthanasia imprint”. He commented that “It is absurd that the Partito Democratico and the Movimento 5 Stelle are relaunching assisted suicide as ‘compensation’ for the failed referendum on euthanasia: it seems that at the end of this story someone must still die! It is a very sad policy that encourages death.”

International helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counsellor. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14.