Near-universal consensus about anything is rare in ethics. But I think you could get most people to agree on an answer to the question, “Was the invention of the Nazi gas chambers a good invention?” In the Auschwitz concentration camp operated by Nazi Germany during World War II, an estimated 1.1 million people died, most of them Jews, and scientifically-designed gas chambers were used to kill many of them.
Those gas chambers represent a nadir in the history of engineering: designed by a corrupt, malevolent government for industrial-scale executions of people who died in them only because they ran afoul of Hitler's regime.
Ah, but what if those wanting to try out a gas chamber are not compelled, but have made the decision of their own free will? And have even passed an online test certifying that they are of “sound mind”? And have read a fancy advertising brochure promising “death with style and elegance”? Just climb into the Death Pod—which looks like what you might get if you asked Apple to design a body-length chest-style freezer—lie down, make yourself comfortable, and push the button. The software does all the rest.
Allegedly, the user will experience first “euphoria” as the oxygen level decreases, then pass out into the Great Beyond. Since liquid nitrogen is involved, it's not clear whether the corpse is flash-frozen after death or if that's just a convenient way to get a supply of suffocating nitrogen. But after you're dead, it really doesn't matter.
The inventor of the Death Pod is Philip Nitschke, an Australian resident of the Netherlands who has been working on self-operated suicide machines since at least the 1990s. I won't remark on the similarity of Mr. Nitschke's name to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, except to say that they seem to share a pessimistic view of life that partakes of what some call the culture of death.
The alleged problem that the Death Pod addresses is the tiresome necessity of involving medical personnel, or worse yet, rolling your own method, in one's decision to commit suicide. The writer and wit Dorothy Parker portrayed the difficulties facing someone who has reached the decision to do herself in with this grim little poem, titled “Résumé:”
Razors pain you,
Rivers are damp,
Acids stain you,
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful,
Gas smells awful,
You might as well live.
But Parker, who died in 1967 of mostly natural causes, didn't live to see how the Death Pod could solve all these problems in one stroke.
In a development that I am sure will be noted by future historians (assuming there are any left), the idea of legalizing suicide has spread around the world in recent decades.
In the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, and some US states, both euthanasia (mercy killing by physicians) and suicide are legal, and organizations such as Nitschke's “Exit International” promote the idea that killing yourself should be—well, it's hard to say what they think it should be. Socially acceptable? More often considered as an option to be chosen when facing problems? Quick, easy, and convenient, like the tag line to countless other advertisements for products that let you become more of the ideal autonomous self that modern culture seems to be encouraging us to be? All of these things and more.
As far as I can tell, nobody has actually died in a Death Pod yet. Nitschke enlisted the help of an industrial designer in creating a full-scale model that people visiting it on display in Venice, Italy can try on for size.
There's a photo of a gal lying underneath the clear plastic canopy of the thing, holding a bunch of lilies and grinning. Death can be funny if you can open up the canopy and get out afterwards. But that won't be an option once Nitschke finishes his design and publishes 3-D printing instructions for the entire system.
This whole thing may be nothing more than a publicity stunt, as the news reports about it say that Nitschke isn't planning to make and sell the device himself, apparently concerned that he might get in trouble with a government which doesn't look favorably on people selling products that are not only likely to kill their owners, but almost guaranteed to.
Instead, the suicidal customer is expected to download the plans, 3-D print the device somewhere (good luck finding a printer large enough to handle a coffin-size plastic box capable of holding the weight of the average human), and hook it up to liquid nitrogen that you get at your handy local liquid-nitrogen convenience store.
Technically, this scenario doesn't make much sense, and it sounds like there's some important ingredients missing. For example, a third party (Nitschke doesn't say who) has to be involved to give the user an access code to get into the thing, presumably ensuring that the user has passed an online test verifying that they are of sound mind.
But the definition of “sound mind” must be pretty skewed. Public health officials tend to treat suicidal tendencies as aberrant behavior, not evidence of a sound mind.
There are so many things wrong with this idea that I could write several columns about it, but I will close with this thought, which readers not believing in the supernatural can skip.
Ever since the Fall in the Garden of Eden, humanity has been in a battle that is primarily waged in the spiritual realm, between God and his angels and the Devil and his angels. The Devil would like nothing better than to kill off humanity, which he finds offensive in the highest degree. So he likes to portray death as attractive, even as stylish and elegant, in order to achieve his purposes, which are to kill, steal, and destroy.
Philip Nitschke is an unwitting servant of the Devil when he goes around promoting attractive means of killing oneself. The Devil, a liar from the beginning, likes to fool us with the illusion that we are autonomous individuals who can freely choose what to be or how to end our lives, with no adverse consequences.
The Death Pod is just one of the latest of his tricks. But somehow the product's execution (pardon the expression) doesn't sound like it will live up to the hype its creator has generated, and I for one hope it doesn't.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunestore.