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Whose body, whose choice?
The pro-choice and anti-vaccine movements are very different - and the difference matters.
When it comes to public health, ‘my body, my choice’ is not the gotcha you think it is.
Since the summer, right-wingers have been twisting the rhetoric of anti-rape and pro-choice activism to discredit vaccine mandates and justify mask-dodging. Now, as the world lurches into its second COVID winter, they’re doubling down. Fox News - which requires its own staff to be vaccinated - continues to make the insulting comparison between a woman’s right not to be coerced into sex, pregnancy or parenthood with a wingnut’s right to huff pathogens in your face. Just this week, reporters pestered pro-choice female college students to explain why ‘my body, my choice’ applies to abortion but not to vaccine-refuseniks.
But the two issues are NOT ethically the same. Not at all. And the distinction is important.
This is why.
For generations, feminists have fought for women and queer people’s right to decide what happens to our own bodies. That fight is not over. We are still expected to explain why it’s wrong to force us to have sex we don’t want, or give birth against our will. The idea that women’s bodily autonomy actually matters, that our lives and choices are important on their own terms, is a relatively recent political phenomenon. The issue is far from decided. So far, in fact, that the right to legal abortion is under threat around the world - including in the USA.
But here’s the thing. A person who declines to have sex or give birth against their will does not directly harm others in the process. A woman who has an abortion does not force an unwanted pregnancy on the next ten people she meets. A girl who decides not to go home with her date does not oblige anyone else in the bar to fuck him. Yes, it sucks to be sexually rejected, but it is not, in fact, the moral equivalent of literally dying because a stranger was selfish. Nobody has yet been known to perish from erotic deprivation.
The issues are different, and the difference really, truly matters. The key question is whether the right to refuse a physical intervention puts others- potentially many, many others- at risk of serious harm and death. Those who refuse vaccines or masks are not merely exercising autonomy. They are not simply denying someone active care and attention. They are deliberately and willfully endangering other people.
‘My body, my choice’ doesn’t work when the choice endangers the bodies of hundreds of strangers.
But the the question of whose bodily autonomy matters isn’t new. In fact, wingnuts who use the ‘my body, my choice’ line to ‘own the libs’ have hit on something fundamental: Human societies have always balanced individual autonomy against what they perceive to be greater social good. The question of whose freedoms get sacrificed for whose greater good is the foundation of political philosophy - and one of the most urgent moral questions of this anxious age.
For centuries, women’s personal freedom was considered less important than their duty to service men sexually and birth the next generation. For generations, it was perfectly legal and socially normal for men to rape their wives. The sexual autonomy of married women was an acceptable price to pay for what was considered a greater social good. Male entitlement to women’s sexual, reproductive and domestic labour was part of the moral consensus for as long as men had total control of the political agenda. For many conservative and religious orthodox communities, it still is. The ‘my body, my choice’ argument for abortion rights has never had much traction with the sort of people who think the whole problem is that women get a choice at all.
What counts as ‘selfish’ and what’s simply expected of you as a good citizen differs wildly depending on your sex and gender. That’s why the same people who will refuse, on point of principle, to endure even the most minor personal inconvenience to save a stranger from choking to death, will turn around and insist that, for the good of the species, women and girls should be forced to push entire people out of their bodies and raise those people to adulthood - an ask that stretches the definition of ‘personal inconvenience’ to its screaming snapping point.
And yet, still, the political consensus leans towards pressuring women, girls and queer people to risk their health, endure immense pain, and offer up their entire futures in service of raising children and caring for their families. When a woman refuses to make that sacrifice, she is selfish and lazy. But coercing women into marriage and motherhood is not the only way to protect the species from the social shock of population collapse.
There are lots and lots of ways to make it easier for human beings to have children, form families and sustain communities but almost all of them, again, involve asking men to do things they don’t want to do. That’s why, with birth rates collapsing around the Global North, the only solution most governments have come up is to ban abortion.
Most of us know, deep down, that there is such a thing as the common good, and that we’re part of a species that survives by caring for one another, and making sacrifices in our collective interest. We just disagree on who should make those sacrifices. In the same way, there was never actually much confusion around sexual consent - just around who gets to exercise it. It’s easy to understand why bodily autonomy matters when the body in question belongs to someone who you know for certain is a valuable human being, someone like, for example, yourself, or your kids, or maybe even your wife. But when it comes to all those other people out there, the importance of consent, of choice and autonomy, suddenly seems to become a lot harder to comprehend, particularly if those people don’t look like you, or think like you, or hang out on the same forums, or belong to a category of people recently declared subhuman by some Fox News blowhard.
Of course, forcing medical treatment on someone against their will is a serious violation of consent. That’s why even the most mission-creepy modern surveillance states aren’t doing it. What they are doing, instead, is creating social consequences for refusing a vaccine. And those things are not the same.
Vaccine mandates are not about the state coming into your house, holding you down and shooting you up with liquid socialism. Vaccine mandates, and other regulations designed to protect public health in a pandemic, are about making sure that other people don’t suffer as a consequence of your bad choices. That might mean that you find yourself disinvited from parts of society you previously enjoyed being part of. Every culture and community gets to set its own rules for how much risk it is prepared to take on. If you don’t agree to those rules, you don’t have to be part of the group. That’s not coercion. That’s consequences.
Let me repeat that for those in the back: social consequences are not the same as state coercion. There is a difference, and the difference matters. Even the fluffiest social justice snowflakes among us are not trying to make it literally illegal to think a racist thought or hold a transphobic opinion. They are merely creating social consequences for those who express bigoted, anti-social ideas. Some people are so unfamiliar with the concept of responsibility that being confronted with the consequences of their actions feels like cruelty. It isn’t.
Increasingly, some members of society seem outraged by the realization that they are, in fact, members of society. For some fragile individuals, the mere suggestion that they might be in any way responsible for the well-being of anyone else is received as a mortal insult, and being made aware that their actions have consequences is an unpardonable assault on their human rights - although human rights, being an essentially collective idea, are probably also a communist plot to destroy the family and dethrone god. But almost nobody is saying that people should literally be forced to have a vaccine. They’re just saying that your personal convenience is not worth the entire lives of multiple strangers.
That sort of selfishness can feel rebellious. Sometimes, for some people, it feels like taking back control. Sometimes, when your whole world is shaking into pieces and you’re spread thin trying to take care of your loved ones, a little act of lazy self-interest - like not getting a vaccine, or not bothering to pull up your mask on the bus - can feel like all the freedom you’re allowed. It might be a stupid, petty, pointless choice to make, but at least you have made a choice, and it’s yours, and nobody can take it away from you.
But there is nothing petty or selfish about women’s basic basic bodily autonomy.
A person declining to fuck you, let put her health and future on the line to bear your children, is not morally equivalent to you refusing to put a piece of fabric in front of your plaguehole.
Somehow, we have begun to define ‘freedom’ as ‘never having to put yourself out for other people’. That’s a sad, narrow vision of liberty. It was only ever designed for wealthy white men - and if the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that for some people to enjoy that shabby, self-dealing sort of autonomy, other people have to pay. If we plan to survive the century, we might do well to expand our definition of what freedom means, and whose freedom matters.
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