There is no small controversy surrounding the ending of a life. Whether from those involved in anti-abortion movements, people working to end the death penalty, or individuals who wish to end their own lives, everybody has an opinion and few seem open to compromise. With efforts to communicate across conflicting viewpoints often laden with invectives and shrill accusations, it can be tempting to try to avoid any conversation about these issues at all.
One organization that dedicates itself to opening up pathways for both conversation and action is Exit International. Founded in 1997 by Dr. Philip Nitschke, Exit International is an Australian civil rights organization that advocates for the rights of those who wish to determine the time and manner of their own death. With an online membership of over 20,000 people from around the world, the organization takes a non-medical approach to the right to die, and states as their mission their belief that, “it is a fundamental human right for every adult of sound mind, to be able to plan for the end of their life in a way that is reliable, peaceful, and at a time of their choosing.”
Nitschke is no stranger to the controversy surrounding end-of-life decisions. He was the first doctor to administer legal, lethal, voluntary injections to help terminally ill patients end their suffering under the Australian Rights of the Terminally Ill Act of 1995. After the law was overturned, he decided to found the Voluntary Euthanasia Research Foundation which later became Exit International. In 2015, he burned his medical registration card, effectively ending his medical career, and to date he continues to address end of life as a civil rights issue, not a medical one.
Just this October, at the Exit NuTech Conference New Technologies for a Peaceful DIY Death, a live stream launch revealed the details of Exit International’s new Sarco Euthanasia Machine. It looks somewhat like I imagine an escape pod from a spaceship would appear – but in this case, the escape is from life. The machine, which can be downloaded online and assembled from 3D printed components, will give anyone who has a special access code the ability to end their life painlessly. The access code, a four-digit number, is given at the end of an online metal health questionnaire designed to establish that the person requesting it is, indeed, in their right frame of mind.
Once the code has been entered, the person wishing to use the capsule lies down inside it and liquid nitrogen is used to significantly decrease the level of oxygen within. This results in peaceful death in a matter of minutes. After death, the capsule can be detached from the Sarco machine and used as the coffin, with the machine then being available for reuse. The machine is the brainchild of the founder of Exit International and engineer Alexander Bannik, and was designed in the Netherlands, a country known for its progressive views, particularly in terms of euthanasia. Nitschke explained the appeal of a machine such as this:
“Sarco does not use any restricted drugs, or require any special expertise such as the insertion of an intravenous needle. Anyone who can pass the entry test can enter the machine and legally end their life.”
The machine was developed in response to a growing number of people who are looking to have control and choice as they make the decisions about the ends of their lives. In the West, we have long been uncomfortable with death and Judeo-Christian ideologies have resulted in a strong cultural connotation of sin in connection with ending one’s own life. No doubt the development of a machine such as this one will cause its own controversy as we struggle to come to terms with the fact that life does end and the idea that its quantity may not be more important than its quality.
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