Joseph Maraachli, the terminally ill baby at the centre of a legal and ethical battle, has died at his Windsor, Ont., home.

Baby Joseph, as he affectionately became known, suffered from a degenerative brain disease. He was 20 months old when he died late Tuesday afternoon.

"We want to thank God and everyone else for the support. I don’t think he would have made it that long if there [weren’t] those prayers from all over the world," Maraachli’s aunt Faith Nader said.

Nader said Joseph was having a hard time breathing during the last two days. He took his last breath just before 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Joseph died with his mother Sana Nader, father Moe Maraachli and an aunt in the family home.

'It seemed like a relaxing breath, like he was OK. He didn't seem like he struggled.'— Aunt Faith Nader

"It seemed like a relaxing breath, like he was OK. It didn’t seem like he struggled," Nader said. "It was God’s way of telling us his last breath was OK."

Maraachli became the centre of a right-to-life legal battle in Canada before receiving treatment in the United States.

While in a London hospital, Maraachli breathed with the help of a machine and received nourishment through a feeding tube in his abdominal wall.

London Health Sciences Centre in southwestern Ontario refused to perform a tracheotomy after Maraachli's condition deteriorated, calling it medically unnecessary. The family took legal action against the hospital so Maraachli could receive the operation, breathe on his own and die peacefully at home.

The Maraachli family lost a provincial court battle, but still refused to consent to removing Joseph's breathing tube. American right-to-life groups took up the cause. The group Priests for Life flew him to a hospital in St. Louis, Mo., where he received the tracheotomy.

'Mission from God'

"This young boy and his parents fulfilled a special mission from God," Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, wrote in a media release. "Amidst a Culture of Death where despair leads us to dispose of the vulnerable, they upheld a Culture of Life where hope leads us to welcome and care for the vulnerable."

Brother Paul O'Donnell, a Franciscan priest who grew close to the family, posted the news on the Save Baby Joseph Facebook page around midnight Wednesday.

"It is with great sadness that I report to you the passing of our dear Baby Joseph Maraachli. He passed away peacefully at home with his parents and family at his side. Praise God he had seven precious months with his family to be surrounded by love and was not put to death at the hands of doctors. May Joseph rest in the loving arms of his Heavenly Father surrounded by all the angels."

In an interview, O'Donnell called it "a victory for life."

"I've seen him the last six [to] seven months being surrounded by love, being cared for at his home. We'll never know on this earth how much it meant for that child, but I can tell you this, it meant the world to the parents to be able to love their child as long as that child was here on earth," O'Donnell said. 

The Terri Schiavo Foundation also worked closely with Maraachli's family.

Terri Schiavo was the 41-year-old brain-damaged woman who was at the centre of a national right-to-life battle in the U.S. On its website, the foundation praised the fact that Maraachli was able to die at home.

'Died peacefully'

"He spent his last seven months being loving cared for by his parents. He died peacefully at home with his family at his side. This is all the family ever wanted, let God decide when their child should leave this Earth, not doctors or the civil courts." 

'Let God decide when their child should leave this Earth, not doctors or the civil courts.'— Terri Schiavo Foundation

"We accepted death a long time ago," Nader said. "We just wanted it to be at home and that’s what we got."

A private funeral service is scheduled for Wednesday morning. Maraachli will then be buried beside his sister Zina at Greenlawn Memorial Gardens in Oldcastle, Ont.

Zina died of a neurological disorder.