The Problem Is Not (Merely) Mass Incarceration: Incarceration as a Bioethical Crisis and Abolition as a Moral Obligation

Hastings Cent Rep. 2023 Nov;53(6):35-37. doi: 10.1002/hast.1542.


Mass incarceration is an ethical crisis. Yet it is not only the magnitude of the system that is troubling. Mass incarceration has been created and sustained by racism, classism, and ableism, and the problems of the criminal legal system will not be solved without meaningfully intervening upon these forms of oppression. Beyond that, incarceration itself-whether of one person or 2 million-represents a moral failing. To punish and control, rather than invest in community and healing, is antithetical to the values of the field of bioethics. This commentary, which responds to the article "Fifty Years of U.S. Mass Incarceration and What It Means for Bioethics," by Sean Valles, considers abolition as a crucial form of justice that must be centered in the work of bioethics. Abolition is both an antiracist intervention and a means of considering the ways health care broadly and bioethics specifically have allowed for the perpetuation of carcerality in the United States.

Keywords: abolition; bioethics; carcerality; incarceration; jails; prisons.

MeSH terms

  • Bioethics*
  • Delivery of Health Care
  • Humans
  • Incarceration
  • Moral Obligations*
  • Prisons
  • United States