IN 1996 Philip Nitschke tinkered in his shed in Coolalinga, just outside Darwin in the Northern Territory, working on a customised contraption that would become known as “the death machine”.
One of Mr Nitschke’s patients would be the first to use it – delivering their own deadly injection – in the world’s first legal case of euthanasia, in the Northern Territory.
Jump forward 23 years and Mr Nitschke, the founder of Exit International, and now living in Europe, has embarked on an Australia-wide tour promoting his latest device – a space-like suicide capsule called Sarco – short for “sarcophagus”.
“You don’t need any specialised expertise, you don’t need to import any illegal drugs like Nembutal, you don’t have to get someone get a needle into a vein,” Mr Nitschke told a workshop on the Gold Coast on July 25.
“This way you simply have to lie back and press a button.”
Mr Nitschke, no longer practises as a doctor in Australia after burning his registration documents in protest of the Australian Medical Association’s restrictions put on him in 2015, so he could not promote suicide.
He maintains his death-by-design pod will deliver a “peaceful, elegant, almost-euphoric” ending, yet euthanasia opponents see his death-by-design pod as another false step into a dystopian future.
Pro-life advocates speak out
Cherish Life Queensland chief executive officer Teeshan Johnson labelled Mr Nitschke’s latest death machine – which can be replicated by 3D printing – as “extremely dangerous”, and she called on State and Federal governments to step in and stop his “promotional tour”.
“Australia has a devastating suicide problem, and promoting suicide as Nitschke does, is extremely dangerous and counter-productive to suicide prevention programs.”
On July 10, not in reference to this case, but in support of human dignity, Pope Francis tweeted: “A society is human if it protects life, every life, from its beginning to its natural end, without choosing who is worthy to live or who is not. Doctors should serve life, not take it away.”
And on May 20 the Pontiff tweeted: “We pray for those who live with severe illness.
“Let us always safeguard life, God’s gift, from its beginning until its natural end.
“Let us not give in to a throwaway culture.”
Mr Nitschke’s Sarco consists of a base that contains canisters of liquid nitrogen and a removable capsule compartment, which can be used as a coffin.
After entering and reclining in the Sarco, the user would push a final button and nitrogen gas would rapidly replace the oxygen in the chamber.
Within a minute the user would pass out and die a few minutes later.
3D printing a suicide capsule
If Mr Nitschke has his way, the Sarco, not yet available in Australia, could be printed at home on a 3D machine, at a cost of about $5000.
It is a far cry from Mr Nitschke’s original death machine that is now an exhibit in the London Science Museum.
That prototype machine, crude as it was, consisted of a laptop computer and a pelican case (box) containing a syringe, an intravenous line and a simple air compressor.
First, the patient had to answer a questionnaire on the computer, designed to determine if the patient really wanted to die.
Then, with a final yes, the computer activated the syringe to deliver a lethal dose of barbiturates via needle.
In September 1996 – soon after the Northern Territory had passed the infamous Rights of the Terminally Ill Act – Mr Nitschke sat beside 66-year-old Darwin carpenter Bob Dent, who was suffering from prostate cancer, hooked his patient up to the death machine by inserting a needle into his arm, and enabled Mr Dent to become the first person in the world to take his own life under a legal voluntary euthanasia scheme.
Mr Dent was the first of four terminally ill people to undertake voluntary euthanasia before the Federal Government stepped in and overturned the Northern Territory law.
All four deaths were assisted by Mr Nitschke.
Decades on, Mr Nitschke and his Sarco are at the centre of things again, as the euthanasia debate rages across Australia.
Euthanasia laws open the way
Terminally-ill Victorians can legally ask their doctor for lethal drugs to take their own lives under a new assisted-dying law, legislation is under consideration in Western Australia, and a parliamentary committee in Queensland is examining euthanasia as part of an end-of-life inquiry that is conducting hearings.
Many opponents of euthanasia including doctors, pro-life groups and the Church will give evidence to the committee in Brisbane next month.
But so too will Mr Nitschke, who believes his Sarco pod will, for the first time, be used to take the life of a terminally-ill Swiss patient later this year.
“As soon as the first use takes place in Switzerland there’s no reason they can’t be printed here in Australia and New Zealand,” he said.