Switzerland has not yet legally approved the Sarco capsule, a 3D-printed “pod” designed for use in assisted-suicides. It is not a new invention: Philip Nitschke, who co-created the device with Dutch industrial designer Alexander Bannink, has been doing PR for the device since at least 2017, when he asserted (in reference to more traditional-looking euthanasia machines) that, “People don’t want to leave the world in such an aesthetically displeasing way.”
December 10, 2021 Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Sarco pod had been approved for use in Switzerland based on misinformation from the device’s creator, who stated:
“Last year we sought senior advice on the legality of using Sarco in Switzerland for assisted dying. This review has been completed and we’re very pleased with the result which found that we hadn’t overlooked anything. There are no legal issues at all…
We spoke to various groups in Switzerland, including those with whom we have already worked on individual cases of euthanasia, in order to offer ‘Sarco’ for use in Switzerland. This would be done in collaboration with a local organization.”
The site Notebook Check was unable to verify any of this information and the original interview with its creator had its title change to reflect the lack of approval. This saga is interesting in and of itself, given the hype factor of this device.
Moreover, the Sarco — which is short, of course, for “sarcophagus” — represents something of a capstone to Nitschke’s career. Nitschke, a licensed physician in Australia, originally made international headlines in 1996, when he became the first doctor in the world to legally assist in the euthanasia of terminally-ill patients. This was in accordance with Australia’s Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill (ROTI) Act, which was passed in 1995 and went into effect in July, 1996. The following year, however, the Australian Parliament passed the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997, which took away the power to legalize euthanasia from state and territorial legislatures in Australia. This led Nitschke to found the pro-euthanasia and voluntary suicide non-profit Exit International, of which he is still the director.
In 2016, Nitschke announced the formation of Exit Action, self-described as Exit International’s “militant” wing. One of the group’s stated purposes is to coordinate “online buyers’ clubs” to facilitate the purchase of euthanasia drugs, whether or not the purchaser’s local laws prohibit assisted suicide. An article published by the British newspaper The Guardian at the time of Exit Action’s creation described it this way: “The organisation seeks to push far beyond what most right-to-die groups strive for – access to voluntary euthanasia for terminally or incurably ill people – and may of them have sought to distance their campaigns from Nitschke.” The Sarco can best be understood in this context.
When he was first doing the media rounds for the Sarco a few years ago, Nitschke’s main selling point on the suicide chamber was that it would deliver to the user “death with style and elegance”. Nitschke is also promoting the device as the linchpin in his efforts to “de-medicalize death”, with the 3D printable Sarco requiring no controlled substances for its use: instead of sodium pentobarbital, the pod acts as a nitrogen delivery system to the person seated inside, reducing the interior oxygen levels from 21 percent to 1 percent within 30 seconds. The user would then lose consciousness, and death would occur — according to Nitschke — in 5-10 minutes.
Also part of his program of de-medicalizing death is Nitschke’s intention to bypass any psychiatric evaluation protocols with the Sarco. Instead, he envisions its functioning according to an AI-controlled series of questions, which will then somehow (?) determine if the user is “competent” enough to commit suicide. If you earn the robot’s permission, it will notify a Sarco-related website, at which point the user will be sent an access code to cause their own death. When Nitschke was first promoting the machine in 2017, he mentioned that Bannink, the Sarco’s co-creator, planned to make the blueprints for the chamber open-source, but mention of this has been conspicuously absent from the latest rollout, and it’s not clear if/where the Sarco’s blueprints can be accessed for free.
The frame is made with material extrusion technology on a BigRep Studio 3D printer and then assembled piece by piece. 3D printing could make sense for prototyping and perhaps even producing the final product—particularly because this would likely be manufactured in limited quantity, given its application. The reason for deploying additive technology for its production is that it apparently reduces the cost, but also because someone could potentially make a suicide booth at home or locally. The company states on an archived FAQ page:
“The cost of Sarco will largely depend on what is charged by the 3D print shop. In March 2018 it was reported on CNBC that a car can now be printed for around US$7500. This gives some indication of current costs at least. Most office stores now offer small-scale 3D printing. There are also many cheap models you can buy for home use. However, this is a fast-changing field and it is easy to envisage that 3D print shops which print large-scale (required for Sarco) are not far off. When the technology becomes available, these stores will be everywhere and the cost will drop significantly.”
Whether or not the Sarco’s design becomes accessible through open-source platforms or not, for the 3D printing industry, specifically, this machine raises so many ethical questions that it makes Cody Wilson look perfectly uncontroversial. For one thing, Nitschke can pose as a euthanasia advocate, but he’s clearly something far beyond that at this point: he is a pro-suicide activist. Before the most questionable phases of Nitschke’s career, Paul Virilio, the late French critical theorist, wrote, in his 1998 classic The Information Bomb, “…[Nitschke] has managed to take advantage not just of the ambiguity of the aptly named ‘Terminal Act’, but of the nihilism of the coming cybernetic era” (p. 5). The Sarco can be seen as a symptom that this era is now in full swing.
We don’t yet know if BigRep knows the uses of its machine in the construction of a suicide booth and how it feels about this application, but we’ve reached out and will update this article if we hear a response. The question for 3D printing companies, it’s now becoming clear, is whether they want to be in the business of building, or destroying. Should humane lessons actually be learned from the first three industrial revolutions, or is Industrial Revolution 4.0 just a catchy name papering over the intention to produce any machine that has a market, no matter what the machine does, or whose hands it’s in?
It’s worth noting that many pro-euthanasia groups oppose Nitschke’s methods, including another Australian organization, Beyondblue, whose former chairman, Jeff Kennett, bluntly stated in 2014 that Nitschke had damaged the cause as a whole: “I think he wanted a debate to try and legitimize the right of individuals to take their lives whenever they wished.”
With a global pandemic causing mental health issues to skyrocket, aiding a cause that will, the more it succeeds, surely incentivize a profit-motive for suicide, seems irresponsible, to say the least. Based on how the public responds these days to companies whose practices it disagrees with, any potential corporate collaborator of Nitschke’s should seriously take into consideration whether any potential payoff on this one venture will be worth the effort in the long run.
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