Futuristic suicide pods – innovation or a step too far?

Exit International, the developers of a novel 3D-printed device designed to facilitate assisted suicide anticipate its availability in Switzerland by the next year. The Sarco suicide pod, which has undergone legal scrutiny by a Swiss expert, reportedly does not contravene any existing Swiss legislation. However, this assessment has sparked a contentious debate among legal professionals regarding its classification and regulatory implications.

Futuristic suicide pods - innovation or a step too far?

In Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal and resulted in approximately 1,300 deaths in 2020, the introduction of such a device is poised to challenge conventional practices. Unlike the current method involving ingestible liquids, this pod employs nitrogen to deplete oxygen levels, leading to loss of consciousness and subsequent death within about ten minutes. This mechanism allows for a potentially autonomous process, featuring an internal activation system along with an emergency exit option.

Daniel Huerlimann, a legal scholar from the University of St Gallen, conducted an investigation at the request of the device’s creators to ascertain its legality within Swiss frameworks. His analysis suggested that the device falls outside the purview of the Swiss Therapeutic Products Act, given that it does not qualify as a medical device. Furthermore, Huerlimann found no legal restrictions related to its operation based on nitrogen use, weapons, or product safety regulations.

Contrasting opinions have emerged, such as those from Kerstin Noelle Vkinger, who argues that the definition of medical devices – regulated for safety reasons – should not exclude products that may not directly benefit health but still pose safety concerns. Meanwhile, Dignitas, an organization with a long-standing history of providing assisted suicide services in Switzerland, expressed skepticism regarding the device’s acceptance. They emphasize the established, safe, and professionally supported practice of accompanied suicide, hinting that a new, technology-driven approach might struggle to gain traction in the country.

The pod’s inventor, Dr. Philip Nitschke, known for his advocacy for the right to die, plans to democratize access to the device by distributing its blueprints for free, allowing anyone to create it. Nitschke’s vision is to “de-medicalize the dying process,” eliminating psychiatric evaluations from the equation and granting individuals complete autonomy over their end-of-life decisions.

This approach, however, has not been without controversy, with criticisms leveled at the pod’s design for potentially glamorizing suicide. Currently, there are two prototypes of the Sarco pod, with a third being produced in the Netherlands, marking a significant step forward in the conversation around the ethics and legality of assisted suicide.