Sarco suicide capsule hopes to enter Switzerland

Sarco has been displayed at several art and design events around Europe Exit International

A 3D-printed capsule destined for use in assisted suicide hopes to operate in Switzerland, according to Exit International, the organisation that developed the ‘Sarco’ machine. 

This content was published on December 11, 2021

Dear readers and users,

In the original version of this article it was incorrectly claimed that the Sarco Capsule “passed legal review”. This information is false, as for example a fact check by APExternal link made clear. We are deeply sorry for this misleading title and information. The article was corrected following a December 8 investigation by watson.chExternal link: claims by Philip Nitschke that he was in talks with several groups in Switzerland to launch the Sarco capsule next year could not be verified. None of the main Swiss assisted suicide organisations – Dignitas, Exit Deutsche Schweiz, or Ex International – said they were considering the technology, according to The organisation Philip Nitschke referred to in the original version of the article was PegasosExternal link. On December 11 an infobox was added based on information from AP.

Larissa M. Bieler

Editor-in-chief, SWI

Some 1,300 people died by assisted suicide in Switzerland in 2020 using the services of the country’s two largest assisted suicide organisations, Exit (no connection to Exit International) and Dignitas. The method currently in use is ingestion of liquid sodium pentobarbital.

After taking the drug, the person will fall asleep within two to five minutes before slipping into a deep coma, followed soon afterwards by death. Sarco offers a different approach for a peaceful death, without the need for controlled substances.

SWI spoke to Philip Nitschke, founder of Australia-registered Exit International, about his innovation, the coffin-like Sarco capsule, and what place he expects it will have in the Swiss assisted dying sector. 

Sarco is made using a 3D printer Exit International

SWI What is Sarco and how does it work?

Philip Nitschke: It’s a 3-D printed capsule, activated from the inside by the person intending to die. The machine can be towed anywhere for the death. It can be in an idyllic outdoor setting or in the premises of an assisted suicide organisation, for example.

The person will get into the capsule and lie down.  It’s very comfortable. They will be asked a number of questions and when they have answered, they may press the button inside the capsule activating the mechanism in their own time. 

The capsule is sitting on a piece of equipment that will flood the interior with nitrogen, rapidly reducing the oxygen level to 1 per cent from 21 per cent in about 30 seconds. The person will feel a little disoriented and may feel slightly euphoric before they lose consciousness. Death takes place through hypoxia and hypocapnia, oxygen and carbon dioxide deprivation, respectively. There is no panic, no choking feeling. [In an environment where the oxygen is less than 1 per cent, after losing consciousness death would occur after approximately 5-10 minutes, according to Philip Nitschke.]

Assisted suicide in Switzerland

Assisted suicide is allowed in Switzerland under certain conditions.External link

SwissMedic, the government agency in charge of regulating medical products, confirmed to the AP that it had not approved the Sarco capsule.

Nitschke told the AP that his nonprofit, Exit InternationalExternal link, never pursued approval because it obtained outside legal opinion from a consultant — a former chair of Infrastructure Law and New Technologies at Germany’s Freiberg University of Mining and Technology — who determined it did not need formal authorisation or licensing to use the device.

EXITExternal link, an established organisation currently offering assisted dying services in Switzerland, says it has questions about Sarco and the legal opinion obtained by Exit International, which is unaffiliated with their group.

“It is unclear what the exact content of the legal opinion for legalisation is,” EXIT Vice President Jürg Wiler wrote in an email, adding: “And how about testing the capsule? EXIT does not see ‘Sarco’ as an alternative to the physician-assisted suicides that EXIT carries out in Switzerland.”

Source: AP

End of insertion

SWI What stage are you at in developing the machine and making it available for use?  

P.N.: 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.

There are two Sarco prototypes in existence so far, and the third Sarco is now being printed in the Netherlands. If all goes well, the third machine should be ready for operation in Switzerland in 2022. 

The first Sarco is being displayed at the Museum for Sepulchral Culture in Kassel, Germany from September 2021 to August 2022. The second turned out not to be aesthetically pleasing. For that and various other reasons it’s not the best one to use. 

Several of Sarco’s supplementary projects have been delayed due to the [Covid-19] pandemic. For instance, the development of a camera that allows the person to communicate with the people outside. There needs to be a recording of the person’s informed consent. This has been commissioned and the next step is to get it manufactured. 

SWI Your stated goal is to de-medicalise the dying process. What does that entail?

P.N.: 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. 

Our aim is to develop an artificial intelligence screening system to establish the person’s mental capacity. Naturally there is a lot of scepticism, especially on the part of psychiatrists. But our original conceptual idea is that the person would do an online test and receive a code to access the Sarco. 

Please note that this text was updated with the following information on December 6: [In an environment where the oxygen is less than 1%, after losing consciousness death would occur after approximately 5-10 minutes, according to Philip Nitschke.]

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