Mark Smith in 1843 Magazine:
It’s a sunny autumn morning in the Jordaan, Amsterdam’s chocolate-boxiest district. Over tea in a modishly renovated maisonette, a voluble Australian 72 year-0ld wearing round glasses and fashionable denim is regaling me with his new-year plans, which involve “an elegant gas chamber” stationed at a secret location in Switzerland and “a happily dead body”. My host’s name is Philip Nitschke and he’s invented a machine called Sarco. Short for sarcophagus, the slick, spaceship-like pod has a seat for one passenger en-route to the afterlife. It uses nitrogen to enact a pain-free, peaceful death from inert-gas asphyxiation at the touch of a button. With the help of his wife and colleague, the writer and lawyer Dr Fiona Stewart, Nitschke is ushering the death-on-demand movement towards a dramatic new milestone – and their enthusiasm is palpable.
“We’ve got a number of people lined up already, actually,” says Nitschke, whose unique CV (and previous occupation as a registered physician) has earned him the nickname “Dr Death”. The front-runner in the one-way journey to Switzerland is a New Zealander whom Nitschke has known for years. She’s not terminally ill, but is becoming increasingly disabled by macular degeneration – something she finds intolerable after a lifetime of reading for pleasure. “She’s also got an ideological, philosophical supportive commitment to the idea,” explains Nitschke. “She’s coming from a long way because she likes the concept and she sees it as the future.”
Whether that future is utopian or dystopian depends on your perspective. Nitschke has twice been nominated for Australian of the Year for his work with Exit International, the “end-of-life choices information and advocacy organisation” he founded in 1997; activities include the publication of The Peaceful Pill, a continuously updated directory of information on how to end it all. But over the past two decades, members of the medical, psychiatric and even the pro-voluntary euthanasia communities have come to reject his brand of increasingly strident – some say extreme – advocacy for what he terms “rational suicide”: an individual’s inalienable right to die in a manner of their choosing. His one time ally, the former UN medical director Michael Irwin, has branded him “totally irresponsible” for telling people how to obtain drugs that could help them end their own lives. And in August 2019 the grieving daughter of a man who took his life after contact with Exit International denounced Nitschke, saying “the information you put out kills people who are not in a rational state of mind to make that decision.”