A euthanasia device is a machine engineered to allow an individual to die quickly with minimal pain. The most common devices are those designed to help terminally ill people die by voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide without prolonged pain. They may be operated by a second party, such as a physician, or by the person wishing to die. There is an ongoing debate on the ethics of euthanasia and the use of euthanasia devices.
Invented by Jack Kevorkian, to use this device and called it a “Thanatron” or death machine after the Greek daemon, Thanatos. It worked by pushing a button to deliver the euthanizing drugs mechanically through an IV. It had three canisters mounted on a metal frame. Each bottle had a syringe that connected to a single IV line in the person’s arm. One contained saline, another contained a sleep-inducing barbiturate called sodium thiopental and the third a lethal mixture of potassium chloride, which immediately stopped the heart, and pancuronium bromide, a paralytic medication to prevent spasms during the dying process. Two deaths were assisted with this method.
Kevorkian assisted others with a device that employed a gas mask fed by a canister of carbon monoxide which was called “Mercitron” (mercy machine). This became necessary because Kevorkian’s medical license had been revoked after the first two deaths, and he could no longer have legal access to the substances required for the “Thanatron”. It was a rudimentary device consisting of a canister of carbon monoxide attached to a face mask with a tube. A valve must be released to start the gas flowing. Depending on the person’s disability, a makeshift handle may be attached to the valve to make it easier to turn. Or, with the valve in the “open” position, a clip or clothespin could be clamped on the tubing. Pulling it off allows the gas to flow. By Kevorkian’s estimates, this method took 10 minutes or longer. Sometimes he encouraged people to take sedatives or muscle relaxants to keep them calm as they breathed deeply of the gas.
Philip Nitschke’s “Deliverance Machine”
The Deliverance Machine was invented by Philip Nitschke. It consisted of software entitled Deliverance, that came on a special laptop that could be connected to an IV in a person’s arm. The computer program asked a series of questions to confirm the person’s intent to die. After answering affirmatively to all of the questions, a lethal injection of barbiturates was triggered.
In an interview Nitschke said that, even if it had been legal for a doctor to give a lethal injection, he preferred that the patient be in control of the administration of the drugs. Reducing the role of a physician also allowed a patient to be alone with their family during the euthanasia process.
The machine was used, legally, while the Australian Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995 was in effect; the act was eventually nullified by legislation of the Australian Parliament.
Exit International’s euthanasia device
The Exit International euthanasia device was invented by Philip Nitschke in 2008. It uses a canister of nitrogen, a plastic suicide bag, and a plastic tube with one end attached to the gas canister and the other fixed inside the bag by a tie held by adhesive tape. Nitschke said, “That idea of giving people access to a means of feeling that they’re back in control of this issue is actually a way of prolonging life. It may seem paradoxical, but what we find is when people feel that they’re back in control, they’re less likely to do desperate things.”
The basic principle of auto euthanasia by anoxia was first described in the book Final Exit by Derek Humphry in 1991. The original methodology was devised, using helium, by the NuTech group.
Nitschke described his device as a modification of the exit bag with helium method described in The Peaceful Pill Handbook. Helium was replaced by a cylinder of compressed nitrogen and a regulator to supply the nitrogen into a plastic bag. One advantage of this method was the availability of larger amounts of nitrogen and flow rates last longer. Nitschke states that nitrogen is also more physiologically inert than helium, with less chance of adverse reaction, and that loss of consciousness is quick with death following within minutes. Unlike helium cylinders, nitrogen cylinders can be refilled in the event of leakage and nitrogen gas can’t be detected during an autopsy.
The principle behind the device is oxygen deprivation that leads to hypoxia, asphyxia and death within minutes. Deprivation of oxygen in the presence of carbon dioxide creates panic and a sense of suffocation (the hypercapnic alarm response), and struggling even when unconscious, whereas anoxia in the presence of an inert gas, like nitrogen, helium or argon, does not.
Close contact with an enclosed inert gas is lethal, but released into the open air, it quickly disperses, and is safe for others. It is neither flammable nor explosive. Humphry’s book describes close contact with the gas achieved by enclosing the head in a strong, clear plastic bag, secured around the neck, with the inert gas fed into the bag by plastic tubing.
Suicides using this method are documented in the forensic literature. In the study Asphyxial suicide with helium and a plastic bag (Ogden et al.), the authors describe a typical case history, in which an elderly cancer sufferer used a plastic bag which was secured over her head, a helium tank, and a plastic hose attached to the tank valve and plastic bag. The authors noted that a suicide bag filled with helium will cause almost immediate unconsciousness, followed within minutes by death. Time to loss of consciousness in a bag filled with nitrogen is 15 seconds, according to professors Copeland, Pappas and Parr, who campaigned for a more humane execution method in the US state of Oklahoma.
Main article: The Sarco Device
In 2017 Nitschke invented the 3D-printed suicide capsule, which he named “the Sarco”. The Sarco would contain a touchpad and nitrogen, and once an activation code is entered, “the person is again asked if they wish to die”. An affirmative answer causes nitrogen to flow into the capsule, displacing oxygen, and death follows shortly thereafter. The Sarco machine cannot be printed on small 3D printers. The Sarco offers a “euphoric death”.
Nitschke plans to release the open source plans for the Sarco by 2019.