Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is pushing a law through parliament to force doctors to resume feeding a comatose woman in a right-to-die case that has plunged the country into a constitutional crisis.
Berlusconi says he is in a race against time to save Eluana Englaro, who has been in a coma for 17 years and has not been fed since Friday in line with a high court ruling that she should be allowed to die.
Parliament – where Berlusconi has a large majority – could pass the law this week, reversing the court ruling and circumventing the head of state, who blocked Berlusconi's previous attempt to order the resumption of feeding by decree.
"I still believe that saving Eluana is possible," Maurizio Sacconi, Berlusconi's health minister, told Corriere della Sera newspaper on Sunday. Englaro, 38, has been in a vegetative state since a car crash in 1992.
Her father, who says that before the accident she had stated her wish not to be kept alive artificially, has fought a 10-year legal battle in the mainly Catholic country to have her feeding tube disconnected.
Last November, the top court ruled in his favour and doctors at a clinic in the northern city of Udine implemented that ruling on Friday.
But Berlusconi, backed by the Vatican, issued an emergency decree on the same day stating that food and water cannot be suspended from patients who are not self-sufficient – only to see it rejected by the head of state.
In an unprecedented clash with the head of state Berlusconi said he could not allow the "killing" of Englaro, adding she could "in theory have a baby" and that not feeding her amounted to euthanasia, which is illegal in Italy.
President Giorgio Napolitano, a former communist, said his decree was unconstitutional because it overruled top judges.
The Vatican, which remains highly influential in Italy, has openly sided with Berlusconi and criticised the president.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the pope's secretary of state, spoke about the case with Napolitano by phone, the Vatican said on Sunday, adding it welcomed the decision to put Berlusconi's draft law on a fast-track.
Medical experts say it could take more than two weeks for Englaro's heart to stop, but that the suspension of food and water will have irreversible effects on her weakened body in a matter of days. Analysts say that Berlusconi is using the highly charged case to concentrate power in the executive, weakening the president and the courts.
"Berlusconi has chosen the Englaro case as the chance to alter in his favour the balance of power between his office and the presidency," said a Corriere della Sera editorial.
Berlusconi defended his stance on Sunday.
"I can guarantee on my honour and that of my ministers, that our decision was based on moral principles and there was never a plan to attack anybody," he said.
Englaro's father has invited him to visit his daughter to see for himself her condition.