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The Exit Internationalist

May 8, 2019

Reinventing death: Nitschke’s new exit pod

Tracey Ferrier, Australian Associated Press AAP

As visitors file past Philip Nitschke’s original death machine in London’s Science Museum, his sleek new 3D-printed model is about to go on display in Venice as a piece of art.

The Sarco death pod is a far cry from the Australian doctor’s first euthanasia machine, which he admits “was not the finest piece of technology”.

Crude as it was, the Deliverance machine worked well enough to peacefully end the lives of four terminally-ill Australians more than 20 years ago, before the overturn of the Northern Territory’s landmark euthanasia laws.

Deliverance was nothing more than a simple computer, loaded with a questionnaire to ensure users knew what they were doing and wanted to die.

With a final yes, a computer-driven syringe delivered lethal doses of barbiturates via needles Nitschke had inserted into his patients’ arms.

Nitschke’s new machine could not be more different. Its function is the same, but this model has been specifically designed to dispel death’s “yuck” factor.

The Sarco – short for sarcophagus – is visually pleasing and promises peaceful, elegant deaths without the need to involve the medical profession.

It comprises a 3D-printed and futuristic death pod, which rests inside a colour-matched base containing canisters of liquid nitrogen.

Inside the pod is a comfortable reclining seat.

The unit is portable and fitted with a large window so users can gaze at their loved ones as they die wherever they choose – at home, on a mountaintop, or perhaps overlooking their favourite beach.

Once inside and settled, users – who must pass an online test to ensure they are of sound mind – push a final button and flood the pod with nitrogen.

As the oxygen level rapidly drops they’ll feel slightly giddy, like they’ve had a glass or two of champagne. Within about a minute they will be unconscious and dead shortly after that.

The pod is also environmentally friendly – it’s fully biodegradable and can double as a coffin, leaving the base available for reuse.

Nitschke admits the Sarco won’t appeal to everyone. But despite the fact it’s currently untested, the euthanasia campaigner says he’s been swamped with inquiries from people who want to use it.

“I’m not suggesting Sarco is everybody’s cup of tea but it seems to be a lot of people’s cup of tea,” he tells AAP ahead of the machine’s unveiling at the Venice Design exhibition on May 9.

“This is the most important day of your life, the day you die. It’s something not to be hidden, it should be eloquent and beautiful, there must be some sense of style.”

Nitschke, who lives in The Netherlands, turned to Dutch industrial designer Alexander Blannink to bring Sarco to life after early conceptual efforts failed.

“Early on, a friend did a few drawings about how it could look, and it looked like a corpse sitting in a bathtub. It looked terrible.

“I said no, this has to look good, and that’s where Alex came in.”

Blannink initially wrestled with ethical concerns, but Nitschke says he soon warmed to the idea of elected deaths as occasions for celebration.

The pair turned to 3D printing for a number of reasons. One primary driver was the desire to help people who want to end their lives peacefully and legally in countries that lack euthanasia laws.

Nitschke intends to share plans for the Sarco online, knowing that one day advanced 3-D printers will be far more accessible and affordable.

There’s no problem with the nitrogen either, as it’s not a regulated substance.

He hopes people will one day be able to print Sarcos for just a few thousand euros, a fraction of the hundreds of thousands it has cost to produce the prototype.

The only Sarco currently in existence will remain on public display in Venice for six months before being put into use in Switzerland, a country that has liberal euthanasia laws.

Venice Design co-organiser Anais Hammoud says Sarco is worthy of inclusion because it shows how design and new technologies can reinvent something as universal as death.

Nitschke is confident the machine will work as planned when put to use.

“I think it’ll become rapidly clear to people that it’s a good machine. It’s a very peaceful death,” he says.