Italy’s top court is to clarify the country’s position on assisted suicide this Wednesday in a landmark case that has divided public opinion.

The constitutional court has been asked to examine the case of Fabiano Antoniani, aka DJ Fabo, a music producer, left tetraplegic and blind by a traffic accident five years ago.

Marco Cappato, a member of Italy’s Radical Party, drove Antoniani to Switzerland in February 2017 where he was helped to die, aged 40.

Cappato then turned himself in to Italian authorities after his “act of civil disobedience” to highlight what he saw as an unjust law.

He pointed out that assisted suicide was reserved for those with the physical and financial means to travel to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal.

He faces up to 12 years in prison, according to the Italian penal code.

“I feel like I’m in a cage. I would like to choose to die without suffering,” Antoniani had written to Italian President Sergio Mattarella before his death in Switzerland.

Legal void

A Milan court is trying Capatto on the charge of “instigating or assisting suicide”, but asked the Italian Constitutional Court to clarify the current law.

The court last October gave parliament a year to fill a legal void on the question, but MPs have not done so.

A new government was sworn in last week after a month of political chaos, and debating assisted suicide is not one of its priorities.

“The current legal framework concerning the end of life deprives specific situations… of adequate protection,” the court wrote last year.

The court can either decide to give lawmakers more time to come up with a proposal in order to fill the legal void or just make a decision that lawmakers will need to take into account.

Pope speaks out

Last week, Pope Francis spoke out against assisted suicide and euthanasia ahead of the ruling.

“We can and we must reject the temptation, which is also favoured by legislative changes, to use medicine to satisfy a sick person’s possible wish to die,” the pope told a delegation from the Italian Doctors Order.

The Church remains highly influential in the Roman Catholic country.

Euthanasia versus assisted suicide

The court case will focus on assisted suicide, without mentioning euthanasia. The main difference lies in who performs the fatal act.

Euthanasia is an act aimed at intentionally causing the death of a patient with the will of the latter by a third party, usually doctor. Active euthanasia is when a lethal injection is practised. Passive euthanasia is when a life-saving drug is suspended, such as artificial hydration.

Euthanasia can be voluntary when it is requested by the patient, or it can also express the wishes of a third party, like a child.

Assisted suicide is the procedure chosen by Dj Fabo in 2017. In such cases, the patient asks the doctor to prescribe him some drugs that he himself will decide to ingest. Therefore the doctor does not act directly but assists the patient by collaborating with him.

End-of-life in Europe: state of the legislation

Only three countries in Europe allow both euthanasia and assisted suicide: Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Switzerland, Germany, Finland, and Austria allow physician-assisted death under specific scenarios.

Countries such as Spain, Sweden, England, Italy, Hungary, and Norway allow passive euthanasia under strict circumstances.