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Home > 2022 > A Death not so humane: Death machine Versus Dignity in Dying | Minakshi (...)

Mainstream, VOL LX No 2, New Delhi, January 1, 2022

A Death not so humane: Death machine Versus Dignity in Dying | Minakshi Biswas

Tuesday 28 December 2021


by Minakshi Biswas *

Switzerland has recently provided a legal validity to the death machine which has been designed by Dr. Philip Nitschke, popularly known as Dr. Death in the country. Sarco, the death machine which has had two prototypes until now has passed the legal test of being available for usage by prospective people in need of assisted dying by next year. Although assisted death and dying has been made permissible in various countries including Switzerland, the use of a machine directed towards the same purpose is first of its kind with the coming in of Sarco, This suicide enabling device is designed in the shape of a coffin with a biodegradable base which needs to be detached in order to serve the purpose and allow painless death to that of person concerned. The mechanism of the device is built in such a way that it will reduce the oxygen saturation level of the person seeking death to a level causing hypoxia and replace the oxygen within it with nitrogen leading to hypocapnia resulting in painless death within one minute. The devise also allows for additional function of just blinking of the eyes in order to start the dying process for a patient with locked in syndrome who suffers from complete paralysis and is incapable of carrying out any movement.

This machine that is aimed at providing relief to those seeking painless end is not free from critical assessment despite passing the legal scrutiny. Two notable issues at stake here are- Can a machine lead to dignified death that voluntary euthanasia is directed towards? Is a death machine susceptible to more amount of misuse? If we take the above mentioned parameters into account that voluntary euthanasia assures not to contravene then one may come to deduce that Sarco perhaps defies the norms.
Autonomy serves to be the guiding principle in matters of decision-making which adhere to the concept of dying with dignity. Even in cases where patient is incapacitated and lacks abilities of decision-making the principle of autonomy takes centre-stage and verdicts are produced considering patients earlier expressed wishes in form of advanced directive. In the absence of previously formulated living wills decisions pertaining to patient’s withdrawal of treatment are made by inquiring about the patient’s preferences, values and choices of the past by means of conversation with their families in many countries that have made voluntary euthanasia permissible. Although respecting the autonomy of a patient who has lost capacity of making life defining decisions and who has not in any form expressed his wishes and preferences about end of life care appear illusionary yet the principle is treated as a guidepost for making decisions by the judiciary in such cases. Taking the case of usage of sarco, the death machine for incapacitated patients calls in for various kinds of aspects that may not amount to a dignified death disrespecting his/her autonomy in the very first place. To make matters simpler, one can confer that a death by machine does not possess any kind of human touch and a patient loses touch with worldly realities immediately before his death. Most patients who seek physician assisted suicide want to meet their end in the presence of their families dying in front of them that makes room for a good and painless death. Additionally, for incapacitated patients who cannot make life defining decisions it will perhaps make matters difficult disrespecting his autonomy of choosing death. As is the case with such patients that their living wills are taken into account and patients who have not drafted an advanced directive their family takes the decision based on the patient’s passed expressed wishes, the person in question is not in a position to deny death by machine even if they would want to meet his end in the presence of loved ones. Euthanasia and physician assisted suicide has stood for the principle of dignity and removing the contact and sight of family immediately before death only makes it automated and not humane enough.

The slippery slope argument implies the belief that if euthanasia and physician assisted suicide is legalized it will lead to disastrous results. In the absence of proper guidelines and checks, legalization of euthanasia will be misused and it will be carried out in a rampant manner which may also take the shape of mass murders of the vulnerable population. The death machine further fuels this argument. Adherents of slippery slope argument perhaps will confide that the death machine would make matters worse and more and more patients who are incapacitated and comatose would meet their ends easily and their consent in form of living wills or advanced directives will go for a toss with legal sanctioning of the sarco. Making physician assisted suicide far less complicated the usage of sarco only calls in for more introspection and critical review by non-advocates of euthanasia as well as supporters of assisted dying who majorly assert it in order to respect a dignified death.

(Author: Dr Minakshi Biswas is Assistant Professor BHKM, West Bengal State University)

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