by Judith Evans
Swiss advocates of assisted suicide are hailing a new invention: a 3-D printed suicide capsule known as “Sarco” — short for sarcophagus. Philip Nitschke, the Australian inventor of Sarco, promises a painless, comfortable death in the capsule. The device received legal clearance for use in Switzerland and may be available for use by 2022. Since 1942, assisted suicide has been legal in the country under Article 515 of the Swiss Federal Criminal Code.
In 2020, 1,300 people were killed by assisted suicide in Switzerland. People who live with disabilities or chronic illnesses too often face questions about the worth of their lives. The introduction of Sarco will likely add to these ableist pressures.
How the Sarco Works
Unlike the current Swiss assisted suicide method that requires a doctor to provide the drug sodium pentobarbital, the Sarco is operated by the person who wants to end their life. The capsule can be moved to a tranquil scenic location or any other place where a person would like to die.
To gain access to the Sarco, a person must first pass an online mental health test. The person then receives an access code that is active for 24 hours. They get into the capsule, lie down comfortably, and answer a few questions. The Sarco capsule rests on a platform that will fill the capsule with nitrogen upon activation. When the person is ready, they press a button, which releases the nitrogen into the capsule.
As the nitrogen level rises, the oxygen level drops from 21 percent to 1 percent within 30 seconds. The person will feel dizzy, disoriented, and even euphoric before losing consciousness. Nitschke claims that there is no sense of choking or panic, and that the symptoms are similar to the effects of cabin depressurization in an airplane.
Once oxygen has dropped to 1 percent, the person will die within 5 to 10 minutes. The actual cause of death is hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and hypocapnia (lack of carbon dioxide). Nitschke emphasizes the relatively painless nature of this death. He states that the right to die is a human right, and that it is “the right of a rational adult to have a peaceful death.”
Assisted Suicide vs. Inherent Right to Life
But shouldn’t we be taking steps to ensure a better quality of life for ill or disabled people? Georgetown biomedical ethics professor Dr. Daniel Sulmasy argues that we must not turn to assisted suicide for healing. Noting that palliative medicine has made great advances in the relief of suffering, Sulmasy adamantly opposes assisted suicide. He refers to the fundamental ethical belief that all people have value just by being alive.
Indeed, Article 10 of the United Nations Convention on the rights of Persons with Disabilities upholds that same belief:
States Parties reaffirm that every human being has the inherent right to life and shall take all necessary measures to ensure its effective enjoyment by persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others.
On January 25, 2021, a panel of United Nations human rights experts warned that legalized assisted suicide legitimizes ableist assumptions about the quality of life of people with disabilities. The experts stated that “Disability should never be a ground or justification to end someone’s life directly or indirectly,” and that
Under no circumstance should the law provide that it could be a well-reasoned decision for a person with a disabling condition who is not dying to terminate their life with the support of the State.
Pressure to End Life
The Sarco is presented as a comfortable, peaceful way to die. Disability rights advocates, however, warn that these claims can make people who are elderly or living with illness or disabilities feel pressured to end their lives. Scope, a UK-based disability rights organization, notes that people living with disabilities often “face the view that it’s not worth being alive and that you’re a burden.” In a survey of 1005 adults living with disabilities, 64 percent expressed concern about legalizing assisted suicide.
In Oregon, for example, assisted suicide has been legal for people with a terminal diagnosis since 1998. Statistics show an increase in the number of people citing concerns about financial implications of treatment or being a burden as reasons for choosing assisted suicide. From 1998 to 2020, the percentage of people citing “being a burden” rose from 13 percent to 53.1 percent. People citing “financial implications” increased from 0 percent to 6.1 percent.
Creating a sleek, futuristic capsule that promises a painless — even euphoric — death is not progress. The goal of healthcare and society in general should be to save lives, regardless of health or ability status. As poet and activist Jamie Hale writes in The Guardian, “Society’s priority should be to assist us to live, not to die.”