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ROME – Several prominent Vatican officials, including Pope Francis, have condemned the practice of euthanasia and assisted suicide as the Italian parliament examines a draft euthanasia bill and prepares to evaluate a petition for a referendum on the issue.

In his Feb. 9 general audience, which was dedicated to the Christian approach to death, Pope Francis warned against both the futile prolongation of life and the artificial acceleration of death through so-called assisted dying.

“After having done everything that is humanly possible to cure the sick, it is immoral to engage in futile treatment,” the pope said during his speech.

He praised efforts of palliative care to help the dying be more comfortable, but also cautioned that “we must be careful not to confuse this help with unacceptable drifts towards killing.”

“We must accompany people towards death, but not provoke death or facilitate any form of suicide,” the pope said, saying “the right to care and treatment for all must always be prioritized, so that the weakest, particularly the elderly and the sick, are never discarded.”

“Life is a right, not death, which must be welcomed, not administered. And this ethical principle applies to concerns everyone, not just Christians or believers,” he said.

The practice of “accelerating the death of the elderly” has become a common, he said, and lamented that in some cases, “we see in a certain social class that the elderly, since they do not have means, are given fewer medicines than they need.”

“This is inhuman,” he said, and rather than helping the elderly who are sick, “it is driving them towards death earlier. This is neither human nor Christian.”

The elderly, he said, ought to be cared for “as a treasure of humanity: they are our wisdom.” Even if they can’t speak or no longer make sense when they do, “they are still the symbol of human wisdom,” he said, and begged society, “Please, do not isolate the elderly, do not accelerate the death of the elderly.”

Pope Francis’s remarks came on the same day Italian parliamentarians debated a draft euthanasia law.

Italy’s Constitutional Court partially decriminalized assisted suicide in 2019 under certain conditions, requiring local health authorities and an ethics board to approve each request, however, they also ruled that parliament should pass a law regulating the practice.

A draft of that law allowing terminally ill patients access to assisted suicide through the national health system, and which would protect doctors from lawsuits, was discussed in Italy’s Lower House Wednesday.

However, with Italy’s political parties still deeply divided on the bill, with the bulk of support coming from the center-left and most opposition coming from the center-right, not much progress was made.

Lawmakers managed to provide an illustration of the roughly 200 proposed amendments, but none were voted on, with speakers Nicola Provenza of the center right Movimento 5 Stelle party and Alfredo Bazoli of the leftwing Partita Democratica party asking for discussion on the law to be postponed until the first workable date next week.

Advocates of the bill argue that assisted suicide should be available for patients suffering incurable diseases or intolerable pain who already have palliative care, while opponents say the law would not only violate Christian principles, but also the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors to treat the sick.

Last summer supporters of euthanasia gathered 1.4 million signatures – three times the 500,000 signatures required –to petition a high court to approve a national referendum on the issue. The signatures and legal arguments were submitted to the court this week, and deliberations on the referendum are expected to begin Feb. 15.

In a statement ahead of Wednesday’s parliamentary debate, the prolife Pro Vita & Famiglia organization said that “between the referendum that wants to legalize the murder of the consenting party and the Consolidated Text on Assisted Suicide, which yesterday arrived in the House, the next few months will be crucial for the defense of life.”

Pro Vita & Famiglia together with the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition organized a half-day conference titled “Euthanasia: Lives to Discard? The duty of society in the face of suffering” on Feb. 9, to coincide with the discussion in parliament.

Among the panelists at the event were Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the Vatican’s College of Cardinals and prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Bishops, who said those who are suffering due to terminal illness “certainly need treatment and medicines, but they have a great need of love, closeness, listening, and support.”

“Euthanasia goes exactly in the opposite direction because it is an intrinsically unjust and cruel act,” Re said, insisting that “Any cooperation in euthanasia or assisted suicide is a grave sin because it is against life.”

The family has an essential role in making members who are ill “feel neither alone nor as a waste,” he said, and stressed the necessity of the State to intervene “adequately with aid and resources” for both the sick and their families.

Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), submitted a letter for the event in which he observed that “In recent years we have witness the promotion, at an international legislative level, of euthanasia and assisted suicide.”

This, he said, is “a fact that represents a paradigm shift in the care of the sick in the terminal stages of life” and which can be “well understood with the expression, ‘culture of waste,’ or the existence of lives that do not seem worth living but, as the title of the conference rightly says, are considered lives to be discarded.”

He referred to Samaritanus Bonus, a 2020 CDF document on care for the terminally ill, which states that “that an illness is incurable cannot mean that care has come at an end.”

It is important to remember, Ladaria said, “that an incurable disease is never synonymous with untreatable.”

Jacopo Coghe, vice president of Pro Vita & Famiglia, thanked Pope Francis for his “clear words” on euthanasia and assisted suicide, and voided hope that “they will arouse in all parliamentarians a supplement of reflection” on the draft bill they are debating.

“We are struggling to get out of a health emergency which has caused death, depression, and frustration,” he said, calling it cynical that in this context, “there is a desire to approve rules that support suicidal instincts which are increasingly widespread in the country.”

“At this moment, politics should implement socio-economic measures to encourage citizens to live, not to die,” he said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen