Updated 12:58 p.m. EDT, Sept. 5, 2023
An assisted suicide advocate nicknamed “Dr. Death,” who once argued that troubled teens should be allowed to kill themselves, has garnered global attention for his latest invention: a coffin-shaped pod that enables people to end their lives with the push of a button.
The man behind the invention, Philip Nitschke, is a former physician and the head of Exit International, a nonprofit organization that campaigns for assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia legislation. Nitschke’s nonprofit has also developed 3-D Printed Sarco Pods, which the Exit International founder revealed are expected to be used in Switzerland.
Switzerland allows assisted suicide, so long as the motive is unselfish and the provider carrying it out only does so for “altruistic” reasons. The country requires the individual choosing to die to possess “decision-making capacity” and “ownership of the action” of their death.
Bobby Schindler, president of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, responded to the pods’ invention by condemning the “deceptive” cultural message of telling doctors that they have a responsibility to help patients die.”
“The fundamental duty of doctors has always been to act as healers for their patients, not assist in killing them,” Schindler told The Christian Post. “Any doctor who helps a patient commit suicide — by whatever means — violates this sacred oath.”
Schindler is the brother of Terri Schiavo, a woman who fell into a persistent vegetative state in 1990. The case received significant attention due to a legal battle between her husband and parents, with the former arguing that Schiavo wouldn’t want to live with a brain injury. In March 2005, a Florida court ordered the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube, and she died of starvation and dehydration.
In an emailed statement to CP, Nitschke said, “The Sarco concept evolved from a request in 2012 by lawyers for Tony Nicklinson in the U.K. about a possible device/machine that would allow a seriously disabled person the ability to end their own life. Tony had locked-in syndrome and eventually ended his life by refusing food and drink.”
He continued: “The development of a 3D-printed device that would allow a peaceful hypoxic death with the press of a button (or by voice or eye activation) proceeded over the following years. We are now working on a third model for use in a country like Germany or Switzerland (where it is lawful to provide the means for a person to end their life). Once Sarco is ‘successfully’ employed, it will be able to be printed in other countries,” like the U.S.
Nitschke said he and Exit International also “dispute the idea that Sarco ‘glamorizes’ suicide. Rather, the device has been designed to give a sense of style and elegance to this most important day, the day of one’s elective death, and we would be critical of those who claim there are other ways of ‘helping people’ who want to die, by offering something that doesn’t actually help them die.”
As The Daily Mail reported, each pod costs between $4,000 and $8,000, and a few days before speaking with the outlet, Nitschke had visited Switzerland to verify the invention met all of the necessary requirements.
The former physician intends for the pods to serve as an alternative to the pills Switzerland allows people to take if they want to kill themselves, as some might not have the ability to swallow. Nitschke added that he worries someone ingesting the pills might vomit, preventing absorption of the drugs.
The pods are portable devices that enable people to kill themselves by reducing internal oxygen levels after they press a button. According to the outlet, the name of the pods is derived from the word “sarcophagus.” Use of the pod is limited to members of Exit International, and an individual membership fee costs $100.
“The person will climb into the machine, they will be asked three questions, and they will answer verbally: ‘Who are you?’ ‘Where are you?’ and ‘Do you know what happens if you press the button?” Nitschke told MailOnline.
According to the former physician, if the individual answers those questions, the machine will then turn on, and they can press the button. The Exit International founder told the outlet that the person who presses the button will “die quickly.”
“We’ll be using the traditional method of getting a Swiss psychiatrist to basically talk to the person and assess their mental capacity — and we’ll have that done before a person is able to use the device,” Nitschke said.
Wesley J. Smith, chair and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, a conservative think-tank, said that regulations surrounding the use of the pods will eventually “melt,” as is typical in these cases.
“So the idea of a psychiatrist exam is, I feel, just a veneer to make it a little more acceptable,” Smith told CP. “But what kind of a psychiatrist is going to approve suicide?”
“The purpose of psychiatry is to help people not commit suicide,” he continued. “And if the psychiatrist says, ‘Wow, this is reasonable and thought out, and I think I would want to kill myself if I were in that circumstance too,’ you’re basically abandoning the patient.”
“What is the response of a loving community when one of our brothers and sisters is in such despair that they want to kill themselves?” Smith posited. “It seems to me the only proper action is suicide prevention.”
The Discovery Institute senior fellow highlighted Nitschke’s past assisted suicide advocacy, pointing to a 2001 interview with National Review Senior Fellow Kathryn Jean Lopez. During the interview, Nitschke said he believes that all people have the right to end their lives, finding it ethically inconsistent to say one has the right to life while denying them the means to die.
“And someone needs to provide this knowledge, training, or recourse necessary to anyone who wants it, including the depressed, the elderly bereaved, [and] the troubled teen,” Nitschke said.
Smith said that he resents the idea that allowing someone to die by suicide enables them to die a dignified death. The lawyer and author shared that his father died of colon cancer in hospice during the ’80s and that his mother died in 2016 of Alzheimer’s while in hospice.
“Are we going to say that that was not a dignified death?” Smith asked. “If the idea is truly seeking to normalize suicide as the best approach to death and dying rather than care, it’s very dangerous in that regard.”
He also noted that promoting assisted suicide encourages suicidal ideation, as some studies have found a connection.
As CP reported last November, the Anscombe Bioethics Centre released a study that month titled “Does Legalizing Assisted Suicide Make Things Better Or Worse?” that analyzed multiple studies in Europe and North America.
According to the research, the number of self-inflicted suicide rates increased alongside the number of physician-assisted suicide deaths. Women were also more likely to die via self-inflicted suicide in places that allow euthanasia and assisted suicide.
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