File photo of patient Terry Schiavo in a Florida hospital, 2001Does Italy have its own “Terry Schiavo case“? Eluana Englaro has been in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) for the past 15 years and her father is trying to get legal permission to remove her feeding tube. Italy’s highest appeals court recently sent the case back to a lower court in Milan that had refused to let him do so. The local media have already dubbed Eluana “Italy’s Terry Schiavo” and the retrial (when it happens) looks set to spark off another major bioethics debate there.

Beppino Englaro has been caring for his daughter at home and says it’s time to free her from “the inhumane and degrading condition in which she is forced to exist”. The appeals court (Court of Cassation) said the lower court must determine whether her PVS is irreversible and whether she expressed the wish not to be kept alive if in a PVS. Her father said she had expressed that wish, but apparently has no living will or other tangible evidence to back that up.

Eluana’s case lacks the husband-vs-parents element that propelled the Schiavo case into the U.S. national headlines in 2005. But thorny cases of bioethics get into the national spotlight in Italy. A Roman judge is still investigating a doctor who last year removed the respirator of paralysed muscular dystrophy patient Piergiorgio Welby, 60, who had described his life as “torture” and asked for the right to die. Only Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and the U.S. state of Oregon permit assisted suicide for the terminally ill.

One Italian angle to the story is the traditional influence of the Roman Catholic Church, which just last month repeated its stand that it is morally wrong to remove artificial nutrition and hydration tubes from PVS patients, even if they will never regain consciousness. The Vatican daily Osservatore Romano has already denounced the Court of Cassation’s decision in the Eluana case as unacceptable because it would “lead legislators fatally towards euthanasia”.

There’s not much written in English about this case yet, but — a sign of the times — Eluana already has a sub-entry (under “euthanasia”) in the Italian Wikipedia.