The Sarco suicide capsule

With Christmas just around the corner, the perennial question is, what do you get for the man who has everything? How about a do-it-yourself 3D printed pod which doubles as a gas chamber and a coffin? You can’t tell me that he already has one of those.  

The pod, or Sarco (short for sarcophagus), is the brainchild of Australian activist Dr Philip Nitschke, who has been promoting it for several years. He believes that he has made a breakthrough in Switzerland, where a legal expert has declared that using the machine would not contravene any Swiss laws. He hopes to make Sarco available there next year.

There are a number of organisations in Switzerland which already provide assisted suicide. It has been legal there for many years and is a magnet for foreigners from countries where it is not legal. Normally they administer a lethal liquid which the patient takes himself.

Dr Nitschke’s approach is different. Sarco is a transparent, coffin-shaped container. When the patient presses a button from inside, the chamber is flooded with nitrogen. He quickly loses consciousness and will die in about 10 minutes.

The pod itself is biodegradable and can be detached from the bottom platform and used as a coffin for burial or cremation. Its design is meant to evoke a spacecraft because the user is travelling to the “great beyond”.

Sarco is an open source product. This means that eventually anyone will be able to download blueprints for free and create pods with a 3D printer. That might be too expensive and complicated for the elderly or the terminally ill. But it might be a tidy little earner for euthanasia activists with manufacturing backgrounds who could sell it to them.

Daniel Huerlimann, a legal expert and assistant professor at the University of St Gallen, believes that Sarco does “not constitute a medical device”, and is therefore not covered by the Swiss Therapeutic Products Act.

Kerstin Noelle Vkinger, a doctor, lawyer and professor at the University of Zurich, disagrees. He told the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung: “Medical devices are regulated because they are supposed to be safer than other products. Just because a product is not beneficial to health does not mean that it is not also affected by these additional safety requirements.”

Established assisted suicide groups oppose Nitschke’s disruptive technology. Dignitas told the BBC: “For 35 years now, through the two Swiss Exit groups and for 23 years also with Dignitas, Switzerland has the practice of professional accompanied suicide with trained staff, in co-operation with physicians. In the light of this established, safe and professionally conducted/supported practice, we would not imagine that a technologised capsule for a self-determined end of life will meet much acceptance or interest in Switzerland.”

Dr Nitschke is used to speedbumps on his road trip to his ultimate goal: “rational suicide”. He believes that anyone should be able to commit suicide legally at any time. A first step towards that is to “de-medicalise the dying process”, he told Swiss Info. “We want to remove any kind of psychiatric review from the process and allow the individual to control the method themselves.”

How can the distributors of Sarco ensure that the person is mentally competent? Nitschke has never been at a loss for creative ideas about suicide: “Our aim is to develop an artificial intelligence screening system to establish the person’s mental capacity. Naturally there is a lot of scepticism, especially on the part of psychiatrists. But our original conceptual idea is that the person would do an online test and receive a code to access the Sarco.”

If you think that Dr Nitschke’s idea is bizarre and inhumane, you’re on the right page. Even if it never becomes a preferred mode of self-dispatch, it’s still a significant development for two reasons.

First, experience shows, across the globe, that wherever there is a movement for “assisted dying”, there will also be right-to-die fundamentalists who operate at the very edge of the law – or beyond it. Because fanatics like Dr Nitschke believe that all legal restrictions are ipso facto immoral, their underground activity does not cease after legislation. It will probably increase. In the Netherlands, euthanasia has been legal since 2002. Nonetheless, several members of an organization called Last Wish Cooperative were arrested recently for selling suicide powder to anyone who asked for it.

Second, it exemplifies an increasingly inhumane approach to death. The poor sod in the pod leaps into the great beyond in his own private gas chamber, unaccompanied, without human caress or consolation, without whispered words of reconciliation, without a tender farewell kiss. Although “established” euthanasia and assisted suicide advocates also regard Nitschke as a fruitcake, they, too, are creating technological solutions to the drama of human existence.  

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.