Six Degrees of Bioethics Separation: Using Black Panther to Talk About Rationing.



OF COURSE I SAW BLACK PANTHER. I mean hello – I grew up in the height of the Washington, D.C., Pan-Africanism movement. I have baby pictures on a kente cloth playmat. What else could I be doing opening weekend?? I’m still recovering from my Wakanda experience. I need a Shield Blanket, I plan on shaving my head to join the Dora Milaje, and Angela Basset is my surrogate mother. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a courtesy recap: T’challa is the King of Wakanda, a fictional nation in Africa, and Marvel’s Black Panther. Wakanda is very technologically advanced society due to their massive Vibranium stores. Vibranium is one of the most efficient and rare minerals in the Marvel Universe. Wakanda has never been colonized and guard their borders extensively. They even have a cloaking shield that surrounds their capitol city to hide it from the outside world. Their Vibranium technology had the power to not only power their elaborate cities and infrastructure, but was used in medical and millitary advancements that most of the western world had never seen. The movie is about how Wakandans live, the Black Panther coming into his own as King, and the conflicts they face with the rest of the Western world.

I’m not a comic book expert, so please forgive me my limited knowledge of Marvel Universe lore. However, in this movie, there was a recurring theme in this movie about the obligation of those who have resources to give to others. For example, Lupita Nyongo’s character, Nakia, firmly asserts to King T’challa (Chadwick Boseman) that Wakanda is obligated to use Vibranium to help other nations in Africa. The antagonist of the movie, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), stages a coup in Wakanda with the aim to redistribute their Vibranium based wealth to Africans and African-Americans living in the United States. Using Black Panther as an object lesson, one can see that the Wakandans were really having a very intricate conversation about a form of rationing. Assuming Vibranium isn’t completely limitless, 1) are they obligated to share what they have with the world? and 2) CAN they reasonably share their vibranium with the world?

According to a journal article called The Ethics and Reality of Rationing in Medicine, they give five different schools of thought regarding rationing decisions in health care – “(1) to each person an equal share, (2) to each according to need, (3) to each according to effort, (4) to each according to free market conditions, (5) to each so as to maximize overall usefulness.” In Black Panther, they touch on all of these arguments. However, it also thoughtfully addressed the role of colonization and race in the rationing argument as well. Many of the Wakandans in the film would say that they were the only nation that was not pillaged by colonization and that they did not want to be like every other nation in Africa. There was a sentiment that the Western world could not be trusted with their resources and that they were not obligated to share. Regarding African-Americans specifically, they also insinuated that they did not feel a connection to them and did not have to get involved in their disputes and injustices. However, the antagonist of the film essentially took on a perspective on rationing given in the Christian bible – “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it when it is in your power to help them.” (Proverbs 3:27, NLT).

Heres a scenario from the film: an American CIA agent in the film was shot in the spine while voluntarily protecting a member of the nobility and was bleeding to death. The only healthcare system with the infrastructure and resources to stabilize him was Wakandan. King T’challa and his General of the Dora Milaje (Danai Gurira) had a heated discussion about whether they should allow for this American to use their resources. Due to Wakanda’s isolationist policies, they were concerned about healing someone with technology that could potentially be exploited in the future. His general was also very frank about her distrust of the agent’s motives. King T’challa said that he saved one of their own and with their technology it would not be hard to help him. Were they obligated to help? Or was the history of dealing with American motives enough to not make it their problem?

We live in a world where we encourage other countries to help and aid each other in conflict. And before we relish in the benevolence of our civilization – let’s acknowledge that it is rarely out of a pure heart that we advocate for a distribution in resources. More and more countries are resisting the obligation to share their resources with the world. This is easily seen in the United States’ approach to immigration or the reasoning behind Brexit. However, we know that there are people who would benefit from partaking in the resources of others. Adding in concerns of the Wakandans – if people have been shown to be historically irresponsible with your resources or you don’t feel connected to those who need help, are you still obligated to help as a global power? I don’t know the answer – I’m not a rationing expert. But this is just one of the ways that bioethics themes show up in popular culture. Let me know your thoughts and comments below!

Wakanda Forever,

The Neighborhood Bioethicist


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“Proverbs 3:27 Do Not Withhold Good from Those to Whom It Is Due, When It Is in Your Power to Act.” Accessed March 5, 2018.
Ryan Coogler. Black Panther (2018) – IMDb. Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Pictures. Accessed March 5, 2018.
Scheunemann, Leslie P., and Douglas B. White. “The Ethics and Reality of Rationing in Medicine.” Chest 140, no. 6 (December 2011): 1625–32.


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