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Inspectors visit clinic in Italy right-to-die case

ROME (Reuters) - Inspectors on Monday visited an Italian clinic that has stopped feeding a comatose woman to check whether it is qualified to allow her to die in line with a court ruling.

The government had raised objections to the use of the facility as a place for 38-year-old Eluana Englaro, in a vegetative state since a car crash in 1992, to end her life.

Doctors at the clinic in the northern city of Udine stopped feeding her on Friday, in line with a ruling by Italy’s top court that she could be allowed to die.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government, backed by the Vatican, has been trying to block the implementation of the ruling, arguing that not feeding the patient amounts to euthanasia, which is illegal in Italy.

Health Minister Maurizio Sacconi, who wants her kept alive, said an inspection at the weekend had reported “irregularities.” He said the clinic did not meet the requirements of the court ruling which called for Englaro to be allowed to die in a hospice, rather than a clinic.

Regional authorities sent their own inspectors on Monday to establish if Sacconi’s objections warranted halting the suspension of food to the woman. The clinic’s deputy director, Luciano Cattivello, told reporters it fulfilled all legal requirements.

The case has split the mainly Catholic country and led to a constitutional crisis between Berlusconi and the head of state. It also sparked a debate about whether, by siding openly with Berlusconi, the Vatican was unduly interfering.

It has been compared to that of Terri Schiavo, an American woman in a vegetative state who was allowed to die in 2005 after a long legal battle.

Berlusconi issued an emergency decree of Friday ordering doctors to resume feeding Englaro but the decree was rejected by President Giorgio Napolitano who said it was unconstitutional because it overruled the country’s most senior judges.

The center-right prime minister is pushing through parliament, where he has a large majority, a law that would ban suspending food to patients who can no longer feed themselves.

The Senate should discuss the law on Monday. It then goes to the lower house which is unlikely to vote before Wednesday.

Englaro’s doctor, Carlo Alberto Defanti, said that besides the irreversible damage to her brain, her physical condition was good and it could take two weeks from the suspension of food before her heart stopped.

Editing by Andrew Dobbie