Dr. Charles D. Blanke, an oncologist and a professor at the OHSU Knight Cancer Center in Portland, Ore., who has studied data on physician-assisted dying, said breathing in nitrogen causes a rapid death. But he cautioned that it is untested, including as an alternative to lethal injection in capital punishment.
“It is not at all clear that nitrogen inhalation would bring a peaceful death,” he said, contrary to Dr. Nitschke’s claim that death comes quickly after a brief euphoria.
The law in Switzerland, where about 1,300 people sought help from right-to-die organizations in 2020, requires confirmation that people seeking to end their own lives are of sound mind and reached the decision without pressure from anyone with “selfish” motives. Then a doctor writes a prescription for sodium pentobarbital, the lethal medication used there.
Sarco would bypass that step because it does not require a prescription for a drug.
Some Swiss right-to-die organizations have distanced themselves from Sarco. Exit, which offers living wills, counseling and end-of-life care, and is unaffiliated with Dr. Nitschke’s similarly named nonprofit, said it does not see Sarco as an alternative to physician-assisted suicide. Another group, Lifecircle, said “there is no human warmth with this method.”
Dignitas, a clinic near Zurich, said sodium pentobarbital “is approved and supported by the vast majority of the public and politics.” Pegasos Swiss Association said it was in discussion with the Sarco team but wanted further clarification about the device.
Others who have studied the ethics of voluntary assisted suicide welcomed the debate that Sarco has inspired. Thaddeus Pope, a bioethicist at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minn., said the debate about Sarco could lead to a new way of looking at end-of-life options, including by legislators.
“That might be bigger or more important than the actual Sarco itself,” he said, adding that Dr. Nitschke was “illustrating the limitations of the medical model and forcing us to think.”