Today’s New York Times (December 20, 2006) carried an article highlighting the cause célèbre of Piergiorgio Welby, an Italian poet, now bedridden and ventilator-dependent after suffering with muscular dystrophy for 40 years. Mr. Welby has petitioned the Italian government to allow him to end his life. “I find the idea of dying horrible,” Mr. Welby says, “but what is left to me is no longer a life.”
An Italian court has denied legal permission for a doctor to sedate Mr. Welby and remove him from his respirator. He says he is not seeking to commit suicide, but to remove himself from medical treatment he does not want. “What is natural about a body kept biologically functional with the help of artificial respirators, artificial feed, artificial hydration, artificial intestinal emptying, of death artificially postponed?” Mr. Welby has written.
“If it is done privately, there would be a way to accommodate his desire to discontinue life support as a burdensome therapy,” said Dr. Myles Sheehan, a Jesuit priest and physician at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago. “But if it is done publicly, it’s a big mess, because of the direct link to euthanasia.” Dr. Sheehan is an expert on ethical issues surrounding euthanasia.
Welby’s book, Let Me Die, brings to mind another book, Cartas desde el infierno (Letters from Hell), written by Ramón Sampedro, a Galician quadriplegic sailor who petitioned the Spanish government to permit him to end his life. Sampedro ended up committing suicide with the help of a friend. His story is told in the motion picture Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside), which I reviewed in the Summer 2005 issue of Cell2Soul. Interested readers can access my review here.