A 3D printed pod that allows users to climb inside and take their own lives has been given legal clearance in Switzerland, according to a report in the country’s media.
Appropriately named Sarcophagus, or ‘Sarco’ for short, the euthanasia system consists of a coffin-like 3D printed capsule mounted onto a stand, that releases nitrogen and allows for suicide via inert gas asphyxiation. While the device has been around since at least 2018, its creator Dr Philip Nitschke now says that he has been advised there are “no legal issues at all,” with putting it into practise from 2022.
“Last year, we sought senior advice on the legality of using Sarco in Switzerland for assisted dying,” Nitschke told Swissinfo. “This review has been completed, and we’re very pleased with the result, which found that we hadn’t overlooked anything. Barring any unforeseen difficulties, we hope to be ready to make Sarco available for use next year.”
Sparking an assisted dying outcry
According to the leading assisted suicide organizations Exit and Dignitas, 1,300 people used their services in Switzerland last year, where the act has been legal since 1942. At present, both firms help those seeking to take their own lives by getting them to ingest liquid sodium pentobarbital, a drug that causes them to fall asleep within five minutes, before slipping into a coma and dying not long after.
With its suicide capsule, on the other hand, Exit International (a firm unrelated to Exit) has developed a device that can be activated from the inside, and used without any need for controlled substances. Instead, Sarco works by reducing the oxygen level inside its chamber from 21% to 1% in thirty seconds, causing occupants to die of hypoxia and hypocapnia, as well as oxygen deprivation.
In essence, the system itself was inspired by the case of British man Tony Nicklinson, a sufferer of ‘locked-in syndrome,’ who passed away in 2012 after a long fight for the right to end his own life. Given that the Sarco can theoretically be operated by blinking, its design could make it ideal for those suffering from similarly debilitating conditions in Switzerland, but its ease of use has also sparked international debate.
Entering the Swiss suicide market?
When it first introduced the Sarco, Exit International was accused of glorifying suicide, and its website still talks of “creating a sense of occasion” around the act, in addition to “dispelling its ‘yuk’ factor.” In response, in its native Netherlands, where assisted dying has been legal since 2002, the firm has been slammed by Westerkerk church, especially after it showcased the technology at a funeral expo.
“Westerkerk will never support people by offering equipment as promoted by Dr Nitschke and we seriously wonder whether this contributes to a thorough and careful discussion around the issue,” Jeroen Kramer, President of the Westerkerk church board, told the Independent back in 2018. “We will not and cannot support any suggestion of using such equipment.”
However, despite what Nitschke describes as “natural scepticism,” he maintains that ‘de-medicalizing the dying process’ is the right thing to do, and AI screening systems are better-suited to “establishing a person’s mental capacity” anyway.
Having been given the legal green light, Nitschke says that the capsule still needs to be fitted with cameras for recording a patient’s informed consent, but after that, it should be ready for end-use. That being said, Exit International has only produced two pods so far, with one on display in the German Museum for Sepulchral Culture, and the other deemed to be not up to scratch, thus a third is currently being built.
This third Sarco is expected to be ready for operation in Switzerland in 2022, and Nitschke says that the company is already in talks with local organizations, about collaborating to put what has been a costly-to-build device into practise once it is.
“We have been talking with various groups in Switzerland, including those we have worked with before on individual assisted suicide cases, with a view to providing Sarco for use in the country,” added Nitschke. “It’s been a very expensive project so far but we think we’re pretty close to implementation now.”
Although the Sarco has now gained legal clearance, Exit International has made it clear that it won’t be marketing the capsule, as it actually plans to publish the device’s schematics in the ‘Peaceful Pill eHandbook.’ The firm says it “envisages that large-scale 3D print shops are not far off,” but this leaves potential suitors needing to source a large-format system of their own, to physically build the machine.
Given that Exit International hasn’t revealed the cost or manufacturing process behind its prototypes, it’s therefore very difficult to assess how one would go about producing such a large capsule, but the company maintains that “It will be up to the individual concerned” to source the requisite equipment, with the plans set to be released “in due course.”
If you or someone you know is having a crisis or contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.
If you are based in the UK and experiencing distress, isolation, or are struggling to cope, the Samaritans offer free support where you can speak to someone in confidence on 116 123 (UK and ROI) or via email at [email protected].
Those experiencing the above elsewhere in the world can contact go to www.befrienders.org to find a local helpline.
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Featured image shows a mock up of the Sarco suicide capsule in a field. Image via Exit International.