It looks like a prop for a SciFi movie (Alien‘s cryosleep chambers come to mind), but this 3D-printed capsule is meant for very worldly, some would say sinister, matters. For most people that climb inside, it will be the last thing they’ll see.
Called the ‘Sarco’ machine, this high-tech death chamber is destined for use in assisted suicide. Once inside, the person seeking to end their suffering may press a button that activates a mechanism that floods the capsule with nitrogen. In under a minute, the oxygen level drops to 1% from 21%.
Death is painless due to oxygen and carbon dioxide deprivation. The patient first goes unconscious, with death following 5-10 minutes later. There is no choking feeling or panic, according to Dr. Philip Nitschke, Sarco’s inventor and the founder of Australia-registered Exit International, a non-profit that “provide information and guidance on assisted suicide and end of life matters.”
“The person will get into the capsule and lie down. It’s very comfortable. They will be asked a number of questions and when they have answered, they may press the button inside the capsule activating the mechanism in their own time,” Nitschke told SwissInfo in an interview.
According to Gizmodo, Sarco has recently received legal approval from Swiss authorities and could perform the first assisted suicides as early as 2022.
Switzerland is one of the few countries in the world where assisted suicides and euthanasia are legal. In 2020 alone, some 1,300 people died by assisted suicide in the country. Elsewhere, in the Netherlands, a staggering 6,585 cases of voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide were undertaken in 2017, representing 4.4% of the total number of deaths in that year. Other countries where assisted suicide is legally allowed include Colombia, Belgium, Canada, Luxembourg, and some US states like California, Colorado, and Hawaii, although each region has different requirements.
Assisted suicide refers to helping someone to take their own life at their request but the final deed is undertaken by the person seeking suicide themselves. Euthanasia is also a form of assisted suicide, with the notable difference that it is undertaken by someone else, usually a doctor. Passive euthanasia refers to the withdrawal of life support and life-sustaining treatment.
In order for a person to be allowed to perform such a procedure, the patient has to be terminally ill, in great suffering, with no other forms of significant treatment available.
Typically, assisted suicides are performed by ingesting liquid sodium pentobarbital, a lethal drug that causes the patient to enter a coma within five minutes, followed soon by death.
Sarco also offers a peaceful death, just way more high-tech. The coffin-like capsule is designed with comfort in mind and since it doesn’t involve any dangerous controlled substances, it will be easier for someone seeking assisted suicide to actually use it. Assisted suicides are required to document consent every step of the way, which is why Sarco has built-in cameras and communication hardware.
Nitschke would like to streamline the process even further, if possible, by using artificial intelligence in lieu of human psychiatrists.
” Currently a doctor or doctors need to be involved to prescribe the sodium pentobarbital and to confirm the person’s mental capacity. We want to remove any kind of psychiatric review from the process and allow the individual to control the method themselves,” he told SwissInfo.
“Our aim is to develop an artificial intelligence screening system to establish the person’s mental capacity. Naturally, there is a lot of skepticism, 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.”
There are two prototypes built so far, with a third undergoing printing in the Netherlands. No person has used a Sarco yet, but that may change very soon now that the developers have received the go-ahead.
Both euthanasia and assisted suicide have proven extremely controversial among both doctors and the general public. Doctors have to swear an oath to “do no harm”, and some believe these practices go blatantly against this fundamental principle. Other critics are less obtuse and believe that easily accessible assisted suicide may make some patients make rash decisions.
More liberal doctors believe that every person should have autonomy in when to die. Many terminally ill patients are so weak they can’t move a finger but are nevertheless in a great deal of suffering. Other patients are literally paralyzed, suffering from multiple conditions, and are in great emotional and mental distress. When discussing the fate of a patient with end-stage cancer and severe unbearable suffering, it is challenging to raise the issue of ‘harming’ the patient in this situation.
Assisted suicides and legal euthanasia will likely remain a point of contention for years to come. In the meantime, Sarco will have time to prove that it’s not just some fancy high-tech coffin but rather a modern vehicle for voluntarily ending unbearable suffering.