A Futuristic Suicide Machine Aims to End the Stigma of Assisted Dying

A prototype of the Sarco is currently on display at Venice Design.

(Exit International)


Bob Dent ended his life in Perth, Australia in 1996 after multiple surgeries to treat terminal prostate cancer had left him mostly bedridden and in agony.

Although Dent and his immediate family believed it was the right thing to do, the physician who assisted in his suicide – and had pushed for Australia's Northern Territory to legalize the practice the prior year – was deeply shaken.

"You climb in, you are going somewhere, you are leaving, and you are saying goodbye."

"When you get to know someone pretty well, and they set a date to have lunch with you and then have them die at 2 p.m., it's hard to forget," recalls Philip Nitschke.

Nitschke remembers being highly anxious that the device he designed – which released a fatal dose of Nembutal into a patient's bloodstream after they answered a series of questions on a laptop computer to confirm consent – wouldn't work. He was so alarmed by the prospect he recalls his shirt being soaked through with perspiration.

Known as a "Deliverance Machine," it was comprised of the computer, attached by a sheet of wiring to an attache case containing an apparatus for delivering the Nembutal. Although gray, squat and grimly businesslike, it was vastly more sophisticated than Jack Kevorkian's Thanatron – a tangle of tubes, hooks and vials redolent of frontier dentistry.

The Deliverance Machine did work – for Dent and three other patients of Nitschke. However, it remained far from reassuring. "It's not a very comfortable feeling, having a little suitcase and going around to people," he says. "I felt a little like an executioner."

The furor caused in part by Nitschke's work led to Australia's federal government banning physician-assisted suicide in 1997. Nitschke went on to co-found Exit International, one of the foremost assisted suicide advocacy groups, and relocated to the Netherlands.

Exit International recently introduced its most ambitious initiative to date. It's called the Sarco — essentially the Eames lounger of suicide machines. A prototype is currently on display at Venice Design, an adjunct to the Biennale.

Sheathed in a soothing blue coating, the Sarco prototype contains a window and pivots on a pedestal to allow viewing by friends and family. Its close quarters means the opening of a small canister of liquid nitrogen would cause quick and painless asphyxiation. Patrons with second thoughts can press a button to cancel the process.

"The sleek and colorful death-pod looks like it is about to whisk you away to a new territory, or that it just landed after being launched from a Star Trek federation ship," says Charles C. Camosy, associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University in New York City, in an email. Camosy, who has profound misgivings about such a device, was not being complimentary.

Nitschke's goal is to de-medicalize assisted suicide, as liquid nitrogen is readily available. But he suggests employing a futuristic design will also move debate on the issue forward.

"You pick the time...have the party and people come around. You climb in, you are going somewhere, you are leaving, and you are saying goodbye," he says. "It lends itself to a sense of occasion."

Assisted suicide is spreading in developed countries, but very slowly. It was legalized again in Australia just last June, but only in one of its six states. It is legal throughout Canada and in nine U.S. states.

Although the process is outlawed throughout much of Europe, nations permitting it have taken a liberal approach. Euthanasia — where death may be instigated by an assenting physician at a patient's request — is legal in both Belgium and the Netherlands. A terminal illness is not required; a severe disability or a condition causing profound misery may suffice.

Only Switzerland permits suicide with non-physician assistance regardless of an individual's medical condition. David Goodall, a 104-year Australian scientist, traveled 8,000 miles to Basel last year to die with Exit International's assistance. Goodall was in good health for his age and his mind was needle sharp; at a news conference the day before he passed, he thoughtfully answered questions and sang Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" from memory. He simply believed he had lived long enough and wanted to avoid a diminishing quality of life.

"Dying is not a medical process, and if you've decided to do this through rational [decision-making], you should not have to get permission from the medical profession," Nitschke says.

However, the deathstyle aspirations of the Sarco bely the fact obtaining one will not be as simple as swiping a credit card. To create a legal firewall, anyone wishing to obtain a Sarco would have to purchase the plans, print the device themselves — it requires a high-end industrial printer to do so — then assemble it. As with the Deliverance device, the end user must be able to answer computer-generated questions designed by a Swiss psychiatrist to determine if they are making a rational decision. The process concludes with the transmission of a four-digit code to make the Sarco operational.

As with many cutting-edge designs, the path to a working prototype has been nettlesome. Plans for a printed window have been abandoned. How it will be obtained by end users remains unclear. There have also been complications in creating an AI-based algorithm underlying the user questions to reliably determine if the individual is of sound mind.

While Nitschke believes the Sarco will be deployed in Switzerland for the first time sometime next year, it will almost certainly be a subject of immense controversy. The Hastings Center, one of the world's major bioethics organizations and a leader on end-of-life decision-making, flatly refused to comment on the Sarco.

Camosy strongly condemns it. He notes since U.S. life expectancy is actually shortening — with despair-driven suicide playing a role — efforts must be marshaled to mitigate the trend. To him, the Sarco sends an utterly wrong message.

"It is diabolical that we would create machines to make it easier for people to kill themselves."

"Most people who request help in killing themselves don't do so because they are in intense, unbearable pain," he observes. "They do it because the culture in which they live has made them feel like a burden. This culture has told them they only have value if they are able to be 'productive' and 'contribute to society.'" He adds that the large majority of disability activists have been against assisted suicide and euthanasia because it is imperative to their movement that a stigma remain in place.

"It is diabolical that we would create machines to make it easier for people to kill themselves," Camosy concludes. "And anyone with even a single progressive bone in their body should resist this disturbingly morbid profit-making venture with everything they have."

Ron Shinkman
Ron Shinkman is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine publication Catalyst, California Health Report, Fierce Healthcare, and many other publications. He has been a finalist for the prestigious NIHCM Foundation print journalism award twice in the past five years. Shinkman also served as Los Angeles Bureau Chief for Modern Healthcare and as a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Business Journal. He has an M.A. in English from California State University and a B.A. in English from UCLA.
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