I support assisted dying – but am appalled by Switzerland’s suicide machine

The ‘Sarco’ would deprive users of human connection and replace it with a lonely, virtual reality experience

Dr Stephen Duckworth
Tuesday 07 December 2021 17:23 GMT
Suicide machine ‘passes legal review’ in Switzerland

I support assisted dying because a good death is part of a good life and I believe a change in the law will bring increased compassion and safety to how we die – both of which are in short supply under the current blanket ban. As such, I cannot possibly support the so-called “Sarco” – an invention designed to enable people to take their own life in a self-contained pod without outside assistance – nor am I aware of any credible assisted dying campaigner who does.

I have long been passionate about the right of disabled people to live well and with dignity, particularly since I had a serious accident in my younger years. Those of us who live with disabilities should be given the support and choices we need to enable us to live our lives on our own terms, and I believe that respect and freedom should extend to those with terminal illnesses who are reaching life’s end.

To my mind, that should include the option of an assisted death for people who are in their final months and in full possession of their mental faculties. The vast majority of the public, those with and without disabilities, agree.

The choice of assisted dying is not simply about avoiding unrelievable pain or other distressing symptoms that even the most expert and compassionate palliative care cannot control, though these are important factors I would bear in mind if I was in such a position. It is about being able to celebrate our life, to gather the people who mean the most to us, to reminisce and say goodbye, safe in the knowledge that we can leave this world at a time, in a place and by the manner of our choosing.

The “Sarco” would instead deprive users of human connection and replace it with a lonely, virtual reality experience. It disconnects people from everything that makes life worth living and gives death meaning. To me, that is the antithesis of what the choice of assisted dying represents.

Safety should always be at the forefront of any efforts to enable greater choice at the end of life, and there are serious safety concerns here. What if it is accessed by someone not in their right mind? Or a child? Or if it is used to abuse others? What if it doesn’t result in immediate or peaceful death and the individual is left alone without any recourse to call for help? I could go on and on.

In stark contrast, the Assisted Dying Bill currently progressing through the House of Lords, proposed by crossbench peer and chair of Dignity in Dying Baroness Meacher, is the safest legislation in the world. It would enable terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months to request assistance from a medical professional to end their own life. In addition to the required assessment by two doctors that is in place in overseas legislation, this law requires oversight from a High Court judge. All three must be satisfied that an individual is making a clear, settled decision of their own volition, after a period of reflection. Any suspicions of abuse or coercion could be identified and dealt with from the outset, rather than after the fact, which is often the case under the current law.

If granted, the individual would be given a prescription for life-ending medication which they could take when and where they like, or indeed not at all – we know from Oregon’s and Washington’s experiences that around a third of people who are granted the drugs do not take them. This option provides huge peace of mind, whether or not it is ultimately taken up.

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The model proposed in the bill, supported by Dignity in Dying and advocated by myself, is one that positions assisted dying as one of a range of options for care and treatment at the end of life, helping to ensure that an individual is aware of and has access to all other choices and support that might benefit them. Assisted dying can and should be part of end-of-life care. Nitschke’s invention positions this option completely outside of it.

Fortunately, the assisted dying debates ongoing in the House of Lords, in Holyrood (where a public consultation is underway), Jersey’s States Assembly (which has approved assisted dying in principle after recommendations by a citizens’ jury) and the Republic of Ireland’s Oireachtas (where a Special Committee will look at this issue next year) are a million miles away from Nitschke’s proposal and I am confident that we will not see anything like his invention established on our shores.

Reforming our broken assisted dying laws means making them safer and more compassionate. The Sarco does no such thing. Time for a safeguarded assisted dying law that provides valuable choice to those who want it and robust protection to the whole of society.

Dr Stephen Duckworth is founder and chief executive of Disability Matters Global

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