Right-to-die campaigner unveils death capsule

Dr Nitschke’s self-build capsule allows people to end their lives using gas instead of drugs

A right-to-die organisation has developed, and will offer from next year, a self-build capsule that allows people to end their lives using gas instead of drugs.

The "Sarco" resembles a space capsule and is the invention of Australian right-to-die activist Dr Philip Nitschke, who is based in the Netherlands and founder of Exit International.

“I like the idea of it as a futuristic vehicle where you climb in, on a day of your choosing, but don’t know where you are going,” said Dr Nitschke to The Irish Times. “It has advantages for sick people who sometimes cannot swallow or have problems finding a vein. If you are alive you’re breathing, and if you’re breathing then this will work.”

The device uses prescription-free nitrogen and is activated from inside by the person intending to die. However, it has divided opinion among European end-of-life organisations, with some reminded of Nazi-era gas chambers.


Tom Curran, an Irish-based director of Exit International and supporter of Sarco, disagrees with that assessment.

“It is not a poisonous gas, it is a very peaceful method where the environment is made oxygen-free so the person breathes freely and has no pain,” he said. “Once the brain stops getting oxygen, it goes to sleep and the person dies very peacefully.”

Eight years ago Mr Curran travelled to Switzerland with his partner Marie Fleming to end her life there. The couple mounted a failed challenge to Ireland's criminal law, which makes it an offence to assist another person to end their life.

About 1,300 people annually end their lives legally in Switzerland, where right-to-die organisations assist with access to doctors and prescription drugs.*

The first capsule will be operational next year in Switzerland – but has yet to be tested practically or legally. A Swiss lawyer commissioned by Exit International found the device requires no special permit. In gas analysis tests, Dr Nitschke said the capsule space, on activation, was not capable of sustaining life.

The Sarco will “demedicalise” the end-of-life process and, eventually, may include an artificial intelligence screening programme to replace a psychologist’s assessment of the person’s mental capacity to decide to end their life.

Online design

A Sarco prototype is on display at the Museum for Sepulchral Culture in the German city of Kassel, part of an exhibition on suicide. Dr Nitschke said the final design was about to be produced in Rotterdam using four 3D printers. After this he plans to make the capsule's design available online, allowing people to download, create and build their own capsule.

Already fielding requests, Dr Nitschke predicts a boom in the use of the capsule as western Europe’s baby boomer generation reach their final years.

“They’re used to running their affairs and don’t like people making fundamental decisions for them,” he said. “A lot of women in particular, who have gone though the reproductive rights struggle to control their body, want to get control of dying, too.”

Countries from Germany to New Zealand have passed right-to-die legislation in recent years, though usually only for their own citizens.

A Bill currently at Dáil committee stage would, if passed, provide for people with progressive terminal illness to decide to end their lives legally. Bishop of Cloyne William Crean has criticised the Bill as a "false exercise of compassion".

A 2020 Irish Times/MRBI poll showed 52 per cent of respondents agree that “It should be legal for people to be given medical assistance to end their lives if that is their wish.”

The Samaritans' free helpline is at 116123, or you can emailjo@samaritans.ie or jo@samaritans.org; Pieta's free helpline is at 1800-247247, or text help to 51444

* This article was amended on December 14th, 2021 

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin