Tuesday, 7 June 2016

#12: Euthanasia machine

 The euthanasia machine looks like an old-fashioned laptop connected to a set of gadgets and wires in an open plastic suitcase, with syringes and a gauge prominent. A white and yellow box of the barbiturate Nembutal stands in front of it. Part of an exhibition about controversial issues in science, it occupies an out-of-the-way corner near a lift in the museum’s Wellcome wing.

Not everyone agrees that it should be displayed. A blogger for the Susan B. Anthony List, an American anti–abortion organisation, wrote after a visit: ‘Upon recovering from my original shock, I…found it slightly offensive that they would put a tool for suicide on display at a museum that is frequented by families and schoolchildren.’   

It was developed and donated to the museum by Dr Philip Nitschke, a former doctor and passionate pro-euthanasia campaigner, founder and head of Exit International, Australia’s best-known pro-euthanasia organisation. Four people used the machine to end their lives between 1995 and 1997 in Australia’s Northern Territory, when euthanasia was legal there. Nitschke then donated the machine to the museum, and it went on display in 2000. He had originally offered the machine to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, but decided not to go ahead when he learnt that it might be relegated to basement storage.

‘It seems to me you lose the respect of society when a patient is in dire circumstances, and asks you what you can do  to help, and you draw back and say, “I’m sorry, that is forbidden”’, Nitschke told Australian magazine Quadrant in 2002. He added that the machine meant that the patient could end their life with only their family or friends present – the doctor didn’t have to be there.

The Science Museum hopes that the machine will make people think about euthanasia. I agree that it should; there needs to be a space (sometimes literally) outside polemic to consider such important things and museums can provide that. Objects can too, partly I think because as non-verbal things they do not try to impose conclusions on you so much, and partly also because they are a reminder of the reality of events, actions or places. My own conclusion after looking at the machine and doing associated research is that euthanasia should be permitted, with strong safeguards. 

I’m also interested in what museums do and do not display. In museums you can see mantraps, guns and slave manacles. A particle accelerator which contributed to the development of the atomic bomb is displayed around the corner from the euthanasia machine (together with a dish found in the ruins of one of the Japanese cities which was bombed). But I’ve yet to hear of a museum which displays an abortion pump or vivisection equipment (both used legally).

I leave the last word to King’s College microbiologist Andrew Lilley, who has seen the machine many times. He says:

‘You knew that four people had died using it, and the ordinariness of the equipment compared with what they actually did with it is really quite shocking. I still in essence feel that people who want to end their lives should be able to, but I now understand better the caution some people have. And the piece of equipment helped me focus that.’

The euthanasia machine appears in my forthcoming book Curiosities from the Cabinet, together with longer interviews with Philip Nitschke and Andrew Lilley. Read a sample chapter here, about extinct things in museums.

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