Switzerland Approves a Device for ‘Quick and Painless’ Assisted Suicide
While some called the “sarcophagus” a “gas chamber,” others remain critical as the device may “glorify” suicide.
A sleek, futuristic capsule that looks like it is straight out of a sci-fi film is the subject of controversy in Switzerland. What looks like a hibernation cell, or something that one might associate with prolonging life, is instead a device to assist suicide. The country recently gave legal clearance to “coffin-like capsule” under the ambit of its assisted suicide laws.
Named “Sarco,” short for sarcophagus, the capsule will ensure a “quick and painless” death for those opting to die. Sarco will induce death through hypoxia; by filling the capsule with nitrogen and cutting off the oxygen supply “with the blink of an eye.” Occupants of the coffin-shaped pod will have to answer a series of pre-recorded questions, before pressing a button to begin the process in their own time, reports say. The machine has cleared a legal review and is expected to be used by early next year.
Assisted suicide (AS) is different from euthanasia. While the latter involves actively injecting lethal drugs to end someone’s life, assisted suicide is when someone wishing to die is merely provided the means for doing so, as long as the person administers the drug on their own. Doctors can thus prescribe the necessary drugs for the procedure, as long as it is not for “selfish” motives.
In India, the Supreme Court in 2018 made “passive euthanasia” a legal reality. This means that terminally ill patients can draft a “living will” instructing medical practitioners to withdraw life-support under certain conditions. The passivity of the act — the omission of life-saving techniques — is key, and differentiates passive euthanasia from actively administering a drug or carrying out an act to induce death.
“Life and death are inseparable. Every moment our bodies undergo change… life is not disconnected from death. Dying is a part of the process of living,” Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, who was part of the bench that delivered the verdict, noted at the time.
The idea of a capsule that gives people the autonomy to make an active decision to die is rife with philosophical, ideological, and political questions.
For one, it has been met with much skepticism and adds fuel to the debate around the ethical aspects of euthanasia. Critics express concern that the futuristic design “glorifies” suicide. Some have also likened its mechanism to that of a “gas chamber” — because of how it replaces oxygen with nitrogen to induce death.
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Switzerland has one of the more progressive stances on assisted suicide where people — mostly those who are terminally ill — can make use of services provided by dedicated organizations to end their lives on their own terms. Although active euthanasia is outlawed in Switzerland, a legal omission makes assisted suicide legal. Organizations like Dignitas and Exit facilitate this process, and many people from other countries often travel to Switzerland to avail of their services.
At present, assisted suicide in Switzerland takes place through the ingestion of sodium pentobarbital, an indigestible compound typically used as an anaesthetic.
“Currently a doctor or doctors need to be involved to prescribe the sodium pentobarbital and to confirm the person’s mental capacity. We want to remove any kind of psychiatric review from the process and allow the individual to control the method themselves,” Philip Nitschke, who was behind the device’s invention, told Swiss Info.
Instead, he added that the aim was for an artificial intelligence screening system to assess a person’s mental capacity.
“In Switzerland, we know that this option is open to us if we need it… Cases of assisted suicide remain rare, even in Switzerland. But many people are reassured to know that they have this option even if they never use it,” Samia Hurst-Majno, a professor of ethics at the University of Geneva, told Swiss Info. It is not so much the practice, then, but the device that has attracted much attention.
The controversy with the present device then is that it allows death in “less than a minute” — a time-frame that, while arguably humane, also runs the risk of leaving no room for reversing the decision once the button is pressed.
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In countries where assisted suicide, euthanasia, or assisted dying (applicable only to the terminally ill) are legal, the legal logistics differ. In some places such as Belgium, medical professionals are required to weigh in on whether a person’s decision to end their life is justified and informed, and then perform the procedure themselves. In others, medical professionals can only prescribe the required ingredients for a person to self-administer drugs that induce death. At the heart of the matter, therefore, is not only the ethics of ending one’s life, but also around who gets to make the final call.
Moreover, several countries allow for the possibility of someone changing their mind at the last minute. In Belgium, for instance, a country with one of the world’s most liberal laws on assisted dying, doctors are required to administer the requisite drugs, and people can withdraw from the decision at any time until the very last moment. “You have a lifeline. You say are you ready? Do you want to go with it? Till the very end, we ask do you want to go, because there’s no way back. Then we give the injection,” Dr. Marc Van Hoey from Belgium told PBS News.
The appeal of greater autonomy over one’s life is undeniable. A couple from India recently wrote to the President to seek permission for assisted suicide, before illness befalls them. Their reasoning? Neither wants to be left behind after the other dies. With the idea still under immense legal debate in India, such advancements in Switzerland may provide more options and autonomy for those with the wherewithal to travel all the way there and seek assisted death.
Rohitha Naraharisetty is a Senior Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, caste, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.