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."
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.