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Company Behind Switzerland's Assisted Suicide Pods Wants AI To Replace Psychiatric Review

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Exit International
Dr. Philip Nitschke and the Sarco Pod

An increase in understanding and awareness of mental health issues and depression in recent years has helped to bring attention to the issue of suicide, particularly among young people.

But conversations around assisted suicide and the right to end one's own life are still rife with debate.

For thousands of elderly and infirmed people in Switzerland, having the right to be aided in dying of suicide has been a dignifying end to their lives. For them, so-called ‘assisted suicide’ was a necessary and merciful service at the painful end of a lived life.

As part of Switzerland's legalized ways to die by suicide, the country has approved the use of "suicide pods" and the company behind the controversial machines have an even more controversial plan ahead.

What is the Sarco suicide pod?

A company called Exit International has created a capsule designed to induce death via asphyxiation caused by flooding the pod with nitrogen when the process is started by the person inside of the pod.

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The pods reportedly ensure the person typically dies within a few minutes and does not experience any feelings of choking or suffocating, instead peacefully becoming unconscious.

The pod is designed to be mobile so that the person can spend their final moments at whatever location that they please.

The Sarco suicide capsule aims to remove doctors from the process of assisted suicide.

The stated intention of the Sarco Suicide capsule is to “de-medicalize the dying process.”

Because the Sarco capsule does not require the use of any controlled substances that need to be prescribed by a doctor, a person wishing to die using the Sarco capsule can bypass the psychiatric review that would normally analyze the individual’s mental capacity.

Instead, Exit International founder Dr. Philip Nitschke envisions a different method of determining whether a person has the mental capacity to choose to die, saying, “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.”

Spiritual life coach Keya Murthy feels that assisted suicide should be demedicalized due to the tensions between a doctor's oath and a patient's wants, "Doctors who are raised in the western world are clinicians who are trained to help extend their patients' lives, not take them. No person with a belief system that life begins at birth and ends at death would like to be responsible for ending someone’s life, especially a doctor."

"An elderly or sick person should be able to decide to die without express permission from their doctor," she continues. 

As Dr. Philip Nitschke concedes, many are skeptical, particularly psychiatrists.

It remains to be seen whether or not AI screening will be a part of the future of assisted suicide, but with the Sarco capsule approved for use in Switzerland, Dr. Nitschke’s AI mental capacity screening may be the next step.

What is assisted suicide and why is it legal in Switzerland?

In short, assisted suicide is exactly what it sounds like. Pending legal and medical review, a person may be permitted (such as in the case of someone who is elderly, sick and suffering) to end their life in a medically controlled setting, usually via the consumption of a drug called liquid sodium pentobarbital.

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Because the process involves the death of a person via a controlled substance, at least one doctor must be involved in order to prescribe the drug and to determine if the individual’s mental capacity is such that they should be able to make the choice to die at all.

In 2020 alone 1300 people died via assisted suicide in Switzerland and “suicide tourism,” in which foreigners will travel to Switzerland to die, is a common phenomenon.

Why do people advocate for assisted suicide?

As medicine, nutrition and quality of life improve, particularly in developed countries, people are living longer lives. A disease that might have killed someone in weeks just 100 years might now be entirely survivable with modern medicine.

However, preserving life doesn’t always mean a full recovery. The eldest members of society often suffer greatly from a lifetime of injuries and pains or from terminal illnesses that we can’t cure, but we can mitigate, resulting in a slow, sometimes decades-long period of suffering and decline.

As a result, individuals and organizations like the Death with Dignity National Center advocate for assisted suicide with stated goals and beliefs like this one from their About Us page, “We believe individuals with terminal illness have a right to die with the same autonomy and agency with which they lived their lives. Our work arises out of deep respect and empathy for this most intimate and personal freedom.”

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Dan O'Reilly is a writer who covers news, politics, and social justice. Follow him on Twitter.

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