Suicide machine that kills users in the blink of an eye sparks euthanasia debate

Dr Philip Nitschke – dubbed Dr Death – tells The Independent his Sarco device lets people end their life in a way that’s ‘elegant and stylish’.

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In April 2012, Tony Nicklinson was seven years into a battle to kill himself. The father of two suffered from locked-in syndrome – the result of a severe stroke in 2005 that had left him unable to speak or move. In search of assisted suicide options, his lawyer reached out to euthanasia activist Dr Philip Nitschke. The resulting conversation triggered an idea: what if it was possible to kill yourself with the blink of an eye?

Six years later, Dr Nitschke—also known as Dr Death—is close to finalising the development of a “suicide machine” called Sarco. The device is intended to offer people the option of peacefully ending their life without assistance, in a way that is not just effective, but also dignified.

“Death shouldn’t be something you do hidden away in a back room somewhere, it should be stylish and elegant,” Dr Nitschke told The Independent.

The machine works by filling a capsule with nitrogen, which induces hypoxic death to the occupant that researchers say avoids the anxiety and discomfort usually associated with non-nitrogen induced suffocation. Despite this relatively humane form of death, Dr Nitschke says it still faces opposition.
“Gas may never be an acceptable method for assisted suicide in Europe due to the negative connotations of the Holocaust,” said Dr Nitschke, who serves as the director of Exit International – the non-profit organisation developing the machine. “Some have even said that it’s just a glorified gas chamber.”

Once the hypoxiation process is complete, the biodegradable capsule can then be detached from the machine’s base in order to serve as the person’s coffin.

The futuristic design of the Sarco – short for sarcophagus – is meant to look as though it’s “taking you to the future,” though concerns have also been raised that it is glamourising suicide.

A virtual reality experience of the Sarco was on display on 14 April in Westerkerk church in Amsterdam for the city’s annual Funeral Expo, which prompted worries among the church’s board about how the machine would be received.

“They thought the technology and futuristic design would attract a younger audience, but that is not the aim of the design,” said Dr Nitschke, who added that despite these reservations, the VR display proved extremely popular with attendees at the funeral fair.

“Virtual reality offers a way for people to experience their own virtual death,” Dr Nitschke said. “People seemed to be really interested in this, they were queuing up to experience their death in a Sarco.”

Current assisted suicide methods involve pushing a switch or pressing a plunger, however many of those seeking assisted suicide are physically incapacitated and unable to perform such a task. This was the case for Mr Nicklinson, whose suicide bid provided the genesis for the Sarco.

Mr Nicklinson’s condition meant his only way of communicating was through blinking and eye movements. Email correspondence from his lawyer to Dr Nitschke, seen by The Independent, sought to see if a machine could be triggered by blinking commands.

“While he may have needed some help to get into the machine, the actual action that initiated the flow of gas could be controlled by Tony,” Dr Nitschke said.

Denied by UK law the right to end his life through assisted suicide, Mr Nicklinson died just four months after his lawyer’s conversation with Dr Nitschke’s, after refusing food and fluids. However, for other people seeking assisted suicide in a similar position to Mr Nicklinson, the Sarco machine could soon be an option.

The first fully-functional device is set to be built later this year in the Netherlands, before being shipped to Switzerland where euthanasia laws are more relaxed. A 3D-printable version of the machine is expected to be ready to roll out early next year.

Beyond the terminally ill who are seeking options for a dignified way to end their life, the Sarco is also intended to open up the conversation about death and euthanasia without the underlying connotations of fear and shock.

“Afterall,” Dr Nitschke said. “We are all going to die.”