No euthanasia referendum in Italy but what’s next?

Voice of the Family

It is certainly a relief that, on 15 February, the Italian Constitutional Court ruled that it is “inadmissible” to hold a referendum on the decriminalisation of euthanasia. Natural law is not up for a popular vote, nor is the moral teaching of the Church a matter of democracy. It is therefore reassuring that the highest court in Italy has recognised the minimum protection of human life constitutionally necessary; in general, and with particular reference to the weak and vulnerable.

The matter is far from settled, however, as Parliament now needs to consider the Court’s decision and is expected to legislate on medically assisted suicide. The same Constitutional Court had already permitted assisted suicide under very specific and narrowly-defined conditions in 2019, which has supported the continued efforts of the pro-euthanasia lobby. Voice of the Family has previously detailed the content of the ambitious euthanasia Bill, brought before the Italian Parliament, but the proposed referendum had to be considered after militant pro-euthanasia campaigners had collected over a million signatures in its favour.

Voices in support of medically assisted suicide have weighed in – even from the Pontifical Academy for Life. On 15 January, Father Carlo Casalone, a Jesuit and professor of moral theology in the Gregorian University, published an article in La Civilta Cattolica, entitled “The parliamentary discussion on assisted suicide”, arguing in favour of an “imperfect law” on assisted suicide in order to prevent a worse law on euthanasia. Marie-Jo Thiel, a fellow member of the Academy and professor of ethics at the University of Strasbourg, supported Fr Casalone’s view in an article published in the French daily Le Monde, on 31 January, suggesting that it could herald a change in the Church’s absolute position. 

However, as many have pointed out, Fr Casalone’s view is in direct contradiction to the Church’s constant teaching that “human law cannot declare to be right what is opposed to natural law … that man can never obey a law which is in itself immoral … Nor can he take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it.”1

In a comment given to the National Catholic Register, Willem Jacobus Cardinal Eijk, the Archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands, also expressed strong opposition, saying that there is no significant moral difference between medically assisted suicide and euthanasia; “either from the patient’s side nor from that of the physician,” as both bear “the same moral responsibility” in carrying out a murder. 

Jean-Marie Le Méné, also a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and the son-in law of the late Professor Jérôme Lejeune, the first President of the Academy, expressed his disappointment about the departure of his fellow academicians from Catholic teaching on the inviolability of life. Le Méné wrote in Le Figaro, on 13 February: “The academy, by definition, cannot support proposals contrary to the magisterium of the Church; in a field, moreover, where it only transmits an age-old wisdom. Indeed, the respect for human life taken up by the Church is a golden rule that largely predates Christian revelation.”

However, to better understand the meaning of last week’s ruling and prospects of the euthanasia lobby in Italy, we asked for a comment on the ground and are pleased to share the following thoughts by philosopher and bioethicist, Tommaso Scandroglio.


For years, jurisprudence has already cleared the way for suicide through an incorrect interpretation of part of article 32 of the Constitution (“No one can be obliged to undergo a particular health treatment except by provision of law”). This prevailing guideline, adopted by law 219/17, allows the refusal of life-saving treatments; even if they are already underway; including those which, in order to be interrupted, require a physician’s intervention (thus constituting the first case of legitimising murder of a consenting party). Furthermore, law 219 allows the abuse of analgesic therapies for purposes of euthanasia. And the third premise leading us to the partial repeal of the crime of murder of a consenting party: the repeated petitions of the Council calling for Parliament to enact a law that would legitimise assisted suicide, which is happening with the Bazoli-Provenza bill.

If, therefore, we already have legislation permitting euthanasia, and are passing more, one does not see how we can escape the legitimisation of murder of a consenting party. Having accepted the principle of murder or suicide for sanctimonious reasons (not for pious reasons, because piety is not the same as sanctimony), one must accept all the means of implementing this same principle.” Permitting only a limited number of modalities – suicide only through the refusal of life-saving treatment or through a lethal preparation; murder only through the interruption of life-saving treatment or by means of opiates – would appear unreasonable and contradictory.

This is what promptly took place, for example, with the laws on abortion, artificial fertilisation and divorce. Accepting the principle that a child can be killed in its mother’s womb led to the acceptance, not only of surgical, but also chemical abortion, simply because abortion in the form of a pill constitutes a different application of the same principle. Accepting the principle that one can produce a test-tube baby led to the acceptance, not only of homologous but also of heterologous extracorporeal fertilisation technologies, to the repeal of the limit of three embryos per cycle, to granting access to these technologies to fertile as well as infertile couples; and, in the future, to the legitimisation of the surrogate uterus … Thus the acceptance of a certain principle leads to the expansion of that same principle in ever more numerous and different ways.

Let us try to translate these reflections into terms proper to the philosophy and history of law. The ratio (reason) of a law seeks its own perfection, because the nature of any endincluding the law, tends to its own perfection. If nature is in fact an end, the nature of a law will tend to become more and more itself, to realise itself more and more in accordance with its juridical form. This means that its ratio will demand ever new ways in which to embody itself; it will demand its progressive expansion. This is why parliamentarians, in trying to articulate unjust laws in a way that limits their iniquity, have effectively cleared all obstacles to them: precisely because they were in contradiction with the very ratio of the law which, in its intrinsic dynamism, has led to the elimination of any containment barrier. It is like keeping a lion in a balsa cage: the ferocious nature of the lion will lead to the destruction of its fragile constraints.

And therefore the ratio supporting euthanasia – present in some jurisprudential decisions, in law 219, and in the Bazoli-Provenza bill – demands to be implemented; to become concrete also through murder of a consenting party. Given the premises, one cannot but accept the consequences, so it is necessary to overturn the ethical and juridical presuppositions that inspire the Constitutional Court in order to launch a real defence of the natural order that has been violated or weakly and inconsistently defended.

  1. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion (18 November 1974), No. 22 & 23: AAS 66 (1974), 744