A Graying Italy Looks to Euthanasia to Solve Its Demographic Problems

An elderly couple wearing protective masks walk across a deserted Duomo square in Milan on March 31, 2020, during the country's lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 infection, caused by the novel coronavirus. (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP) (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images)
MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images

ROME, Italy — Over 750,000 Italians have signed a petition for a public referendum on legalizing euthanasia, guaranteeing its presence in the next national elections, local media reported this week.

The three-quarters of a million signatures collected so far comfortably surpass the 500,000 needed to force an Italian referendum on the issue, and observers suggest the referendum could be voted on as early as next year.

Italy, which has the oldest population of any country in Europe and the second oldest population in the entire world, may soon legalize an escape chute for those wishing to unburden family members or the state. Even for those who do not wish it, the pressure to “do the right thing” will be substantial.

Between 2009 and 2020, Italy’s population grew older every single year. In 2009, 20.3 percent of the population was 65 years or older, whereas by 2020 that figure had risen to 23.2 percent. The share of elderly people in the Italian society has been growing constantly while the share of young population has been steadily declining in the last years.

“For reasons of demographics, productivity, and distribution, the Italian system will become harder and harder to finance in the coming years,” wrote Christopher Caldwell in 2020.

Caldwell noted that the world’s GDP doubled since the Berlin Wall came down while Italy’s economy flatlined in the same period.

At the same time, Italy’s population is imploding. Italian women bear only 1.21 children each, well below replacement levels. There are fewer and fewer young people to support the increasing numbers of elderly, most of whom are retired.

In 2019, Italy’s national statistics office (Istat) reported that the country is set to become one of the few nations in the world to experience a “demographic recession,” a significant drop in the size of its working-age population (15-64 years of age).

According to its estimates, by the year 2050, the share of the population aged between 15 and 64 will drop to just over half of Italy’s entire total population, or 54.2 percent. This 10 percent decline from Italy’s already low levels — over 6 million fewer potential workers — could have with dramatic consequences for productivity and pressure on social security.

This represents “a true numerical decline whose only precedent in Italy’s history is the long-ago period of 1917-18, an era marked by the Great War and the dramatic effects of the Spanish flu pandemic,” said Istat’s president Gian Carlo Blangiardo at the time.

While few speak publicly of the positive economic ramifications of legalizing euthanasia, it is always in the background.

“I signed because today, without a law to regulate it, euthanasia is not a right accessible to all,” said celebrity journalist and writer Roberto Saviano this week in a statement in reference to the petition.

“I signed for the free choice of those who do not have the possibility to go to countries where euthanasia is legal,” he added.

For its part, the Vatican has consistently condemned the idea of legalizing euthanasia, calling it “an intrinsically evil act.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church minces no words in its absolute condemnation of euthanasia, which it considers to be “murder,” even when carried out with the intention to reduce suffering.

An act or omission “which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator,” the Catechism states.

“The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded,” it adds.

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