Eluana Englaro, the comatose accident victim at the center of a right-to-die drama gripping Italy, died Monday as lawmakers debated a bill to force doctors to restore her life support.
Health Minister Maurizio Sacconi made the announcement, carried on Italian television, to the Senate moments after the chamber began its debate on controversial emergency legislation aimed at keeping Englaro alive.
Doctors in Udine, northeast Italy, stopped feeding the 38-year-old woman on Friday amid a flurry of efforts to keep her alive, with conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi accused of politicizing the affair.
The Vatican reacted swiftly to the news of Englaro's death, imploring God to "forgive" those responsible.
"May the Lord welcome her and forgive those who led her there (to her death)," the Vatican's health minister Javier Lozano Barragan told the ANSA news agency.
Englaro's father Beppino Englaro, who had battled for years for her right to die, asked to be allowed time on his own before speaking to reporters, the all-news channel Sky TG24 reported.
Berlusconi said he learned of Englaro's death "with deep pain," news reports said. "The bitterness is great that the government could not act to save a life," he said.
After observing a minute's silence, the senators nevertheless proceeded with their examination of the emergency decree issued by Berlusconi's cabinet on Friday, which, if passed, would have prevented doctors from withholding her food.
President Giorgio Napolitano had refused to sign the new law, which covers euthanasia and the rights of "persons not in a position to decide for themselves," and the lawmakers opted to continue their deliberations with an eye on potential future cases.
Englaro's family won a lengthy and arduous legal battle in November to allow her to die after she spent 17 years in a coma following a traffic accident.
Englaro's longtime neurologist, Carlo Alberto Defanti, had predicted that she could remain alive another eight to 10 days, until February 17 to 19.
Defanti said, he felt he was doing "the right thing" in assisting her death. "I am helping a person achieve her own wish, a defenseless person who was betrayed by everyone except her father and a few other people."
In November, courts pronounced themselves satisfied that Englaro's coma was irreversible, and that she had clearly expressed her wish, not to be kept alive artificially when a close friend fell into a coma after a separate accident.
Englaro's case has torn predominantly Roman Catholic Italy in two, with equal numbers, 47 percent wanting her to be kept alive or allowed to die, according to an opinion poll in the leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera.
While euthanasia is illegal in Italy, patients have the right to refuse care.
Englaro, however, has become a symbol for the Catholic Church in its campaign against mercy killings.
A leading figure in the opposition Democratic Party, Massimo D'Alema, on Monday described Berlusconi as a "bully."
"Berlusconi has little knowledge of the constitutional culture. He is a bully who wants to question the president's constitutional democratic powers," he said.
The former foreign minister told the ANSA news agency: "This is worrisome. Besides trying to assert his power, (Berlusconi) has exploited a human story."
Englaro's case was reminiscent of that of American Terry Schiavo, who was in a vegetative state for 15 years before she died in the US state of Florida in March 2005.
Her death followed a long court battle during which, then president George W. Bush flew to Washington from a vacation at his Texan ranch to try to overturn a court ruling under which she was allowed to die.