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? He probably doesn’t have that.
The pod, or Sarco (short for sarcophagus), is the brainchild of Australian activist Dr Philip Nitschke, who has been promoting this contraption for several years. A breakthrough has just come in Switzerland, where a legal expert has declared that using the machine would not contravene any Swiss laws,
Assisted suicide has been legal in Switzerland for many years and many foreigners go there to die from countries where it is not legal.
There are a number of organisations in Switzerland which already provide assistance. Normally they administer a lethal medication which the patient takes himself.
Sarco is a transparent, coffin-shaped plastic container. When the patient presses a button from inside, it 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.
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 innovation. 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 said in an interview with Swiss Info. “We want to remove any kind of psychiatric review from the process and allow the individual to control the method themselves.”
Sarco is an open source product. Eventually anyone will be able to download the blueprints for free and create their own pod with a 3D printer. Its design is meant to evoke a spacecraft because the user is travelling to the “great beyond”.
How can the distributors of Sarco ensure that the person is mentally competent? Nitschke is never 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.”
Dr Nitschke hopes to make Sarco available next year for potential users in Switzerland.