Is “The Right to Die” Racialized Biopolitics?

[This post originally appeared at the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog which is now defunct In one respect, the title of the post was redundant: biopolitics are always racialized.]


My post earlier in the week drew attention to the imbrication of the sub-field of bioethics in the workings of biopower and neoliberal biopolitics. I noted how biopolitics has produced discussions in bioethics that surround (among other things) physician-assisted suicide, offering an excerpt from an article in the Ottawa Citizen to show how biopower operates through coercive normalization such as the entrenchment of legislation that legalizes medically-assisted suicide.

An article that appeared in the Washington Post is relevant to the question posed in the title of this post, highlighting the racialized implications of “right-to-die” legislation and underscoring the inextricable relation between targeted populations that Foucault’s prescient claims about a “racism against the abnormal” foregrounded. Here is an excerpt from the Washington Post article:

“Historically, African Americans have not had a lot of control over their bodies, and I don’t think offering them assisted suicide is going to make them feel more autonomous,” King said.

Some worry that blacks, who tend to have less access to treatment and preventive care, may think that ending their lives early is their best option when given a terminal diagnosis.

Rev. Eugene Rivers III, a black minister from Boston with a national reputation for his work against urban violence, is helping a group of opponents called No DC Suicide. Rivers has called the legislation “back end eugenics” aimed at eliminating poor blacks. No DC Suicide is endorsed by organizations including the Arc, the advocacy group for people with disabilities, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the D.C. Catholic Conference.

Some African American residents have said the legislation reminds them of the Tuskegee experiments, in which hundreds of black men with syphilis in Alabama unwittingly participated in a 40-year federal study of the disease’s long-term effect. The men were told they were being given “free health care” and were being treated for the disorder, when in fact they were not.

“They are afraid that somebody is going to take advantage of them the way they have been taken advantage of in the past,” said Omega Silva, the black D.C. physician working with Compassion and Choices, a national advocacy group trying to pass the legislation. “We have to assure them they are in control of everything.”

African Americans, who make up nearly half of the population in the District, have been the group most consistently opposed to the practice.

In 2013, the Pew Research Center found 65 percent of African Americans and Latinos nationwide opposed aid-in-dying, compared with 42 percent of whites. Although D.C. polling isn’t available, a Washington Post survey last year found that four in 10 black Marylanders supported similar legislation, about 20 percentage points lower than the state overall.

Read the entire Washington Post article here.

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