Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
In our discussions as pro-life advocates about abortion, we often run into bodily autonomy arguments. These maintain that, because people have a right to control what happens to or in their bodies, or—at the very least—have the right to refuse to allow someone else to use their bodies, abortion must be permitted. These positions are usually oversimplified as the assertion “my body, my choice.”
ERI has already substantially discussed bodily autonomy arguments within the Equipped for Life Course, as well as in several blog posts and videos. As such, this article will not focus on understanding and responding to bodily autonomy arguments generally. Instead, before campus outreach begins again, I want to prepare you to navigate the discussion about bodily autonomy in light of the controversies about COVID-19 masks and vaccine mandates. While often framed as an instance of inconsistency among pro-choice or pro-life individuals, the differing positions about mask/vaccine mandates actually highlights an important point of common ground and clarification in our discussions of bodily autonomy.
If someone brings up mask/vaccine mandates in your conversations, you should first take a beat to remind yourself to practice charitable interpretation. Remember why the different positions on mask/vaccine mandates might seem at odds with someone’s position on abortion. Then, respond by highlighting the common ground that the mask/vaccine mandates reveal about most people’s positions on the limits of bodily autonomy and transition the discussion back to abortion. I will discuss each of these steps more fully below.
Approach Covid Mandates with Charity and Understanding
It can be very easy to get defensive when someone starts pointing out what they think is inconsistent or even hypocritical in your position, but most people who are willing to discuss a controversial topic like abortion with someone they know disagrees are not just looking to score rhetorical points. That your position seems inconsistent is so obvious to them that they probably can’t understand why you don’t see the “inconsistency.” So, approach the discussion assuming that your dialogue partner acts in good faith.
Understanding the Pro-Life/Anti-Mandate Position
From the pro-choice perspective, that some individuals support restrictions on abortion while also resisting mask or vaccine mandates is genuinely confusing. As an example, consider the below excerpt from an article in Vogue (you can read the full article here):
The first time I saw a photo of an anti-vaxxer with a sign that read “My Body My Choice,” I was sort of puzzled. I thought perhaps the photo editor had used the wrong image to accompany the story—but then I saw that the sign also included a picture of a mask with a red line across it. No, these people weren’t protesting a government that was regulating uteruses, a government that was telling women when they could end a pregnancy that was going on in their own bodies. They were instead protesting a simple and painless public-health measure. They were mad at the idea of having to wear a piece of fabric on their faces. For this particular group, government regulation was fine unless it was regulating them—at which point it became a horrible infringement on their constitutional rights.
That author, and people who agree, are frustrated with the person who is pro-life/anti mandate because they think a mask/vaccine mandate as doing the same thing we say abortion restrictions would do: save innocent lives. As they see it, mask/vaccine mandates require very little from individuals, especially when compared to pregnancy and labor, and instituting mask/vaccine mandates would prevent innocent people from suffering or dying.
Moreover, they think that a legitimate purpose of government is to make sure that someone’s liberty to engage in risky behavior does not unduly endanger non-consenting individuals. In other words, they believe that the state should very much be in the business of requiring that I take simple, effective, measures to protect other people who—through no fault of their own—would be otherwise endangered by my actions. Thus, the state should require that individuals get vaccinated or wear masks in order to protect themselves (as when the state passes seatbelt or helmet laws) and non-consenting others (as with laws designating where one can or cannot smoke).
That someone supports restrictions on abortion—i.e. they support a substantial violation of bodily autonomy in order to protect a human fetus (who a pro-choice person might not believe is an equally morally valuable person)—but does not also support the state requiring people to wear a mask or get vaccinated—i.e. experiencing a minor inconvenience or risk compared to pregnancy in order to protect themselves and every person (who is clearly equally morally valuable)—seems inconsistent. This often leaves them to conclude (incorrectly) that pro-life people don’t actually care about saving unborn babies, but that pro-life people are really just interested in controlling women. They aren’t trying to demonize pro-life people in drawing this conclusion; it’s just the best explanation for our “inconsistent” behavior as they understand it.
Understanding the Pro-Choice/Pro-Mandate Position
On the other hand, from the pro-life perspective, that some individuals support mask or vaccine mandates while insisting that bodily autonomy justifies abortion is similarly confusing. Consider the below excerpt from this article in Vice:
It’s “hypocritical,” she said, that Democrats support people’s right to choose abortion, but not their right to abstain from vaccination. Alluding to the legislation in the California State Assembly, as well as a recent New York bill that passed into law eliminating religious exemptions for vaccines, she continued: “When it comes to vaccines, Democrats are the ones pushing the vaccine mandates—suddenly it’s not ‘your body, your choice’ anymore. Suddenly the state has a say.”
As with the pro-choice person who doesn’t understand a pro-life/anti-mandate position, a pro-choice/pro-mandate position puzzles many pro-life people. That someone thinks respecting bodily autonomy is so fundamental that it justifies abortion—i.e. killing a person—but is not fundamental enough to justify risking another person’s death by inadvertently passing along COVID-19 seems inconsistent.
Medical abortions essentially suffocate human fetuses by destroying their placenta, which they rely on for oxygen and nutrients. Surgical abortions entail the dismemberment of the often still-living human fetus. Pro-life people believe that the human fetus is equally morally valuable to all other human persons. If someone believes they must be allowed to violently kill an innocent human person in order to ensure their bodily autonomy is maintained, it seems like refusing to get vaccinated or wear a mask should likewise be permitted. On the face of it, directly killing an innocent person should take far more justification than merely engaging in risky behavior. If we can override bodily autonomy to prevent someone from merely risking harm to another person, as vaccine or mask mandates do, we should be able to override bodily autonomy to prevent someone from directly harming another person via abortion procedures. Like the pro-life/anti-mandate position, the pro-choice/pro-mandate appears inconsistent.
Highlight the Common Ground
These apparent inconsistencies present us with a really fantastic opportunity for clarification and finding common ground. Specifically, it gives us a chance to emphasize that the disagreement we usually have regarding bodily autonomy arguments is not about whether or not people have a right to bodily autonomy, but rather what the right to bodily autonomy entails. In other words, the vast majority of people on both sides of the abortion debate agree that people do have a right to bodily autonomy. The vast majority of people on both sides of the abortion debate also agree that there are appropriate limits to that right. The question, then, is: does placing restrictions on abortion inappropriately violate the right to bodily autonomy?
That pro-choice people have been so frustrated by people who are protesting mask or vaccine mandates using the “my body, my choice” slogan tells me that we have not done a good job explicitly highlighting this point of common ground. Often when we hear someone make an argument for abortion as a way of ensuring the right to bodily autonomy, we are quick to jump into showing why such arguments do not show abortion is permissible. I think it would only make our conversations better if we first stopped to explicitly acknowledge that we actually agree there is such a thing as a right to bodily autonomy. While we think it is an important and fundamental right, we don’t think it’s an absolute right. However, we suspect they actually agree with us on that, too.
Move the Conversation Back to Abortion
Resist the urge to argue about masks and vaccines. There are certainly many points where the analogy between mask/vaccine mandates and abortion restrictions break down, but unless you are talking to someone with whom you have regular conversations and you think the mask/vaccine discussion is a valuable rabbit trail, don’t get into debates about disanalogous features and whether or not they are morally relevant. It’s more important to understand why the person with whom you are talking sees these situations as analogous than for you to prove that they are not. After helping the person with whom you are talking see the places where you are both on the same page, transition the conversation back to abortion.
If You Agree that there Should Be Mask/Vaccine Mandates
This is a fantastic opportunity to help the person with whom you are talking see the diversity of views in the pro-life movement. Embrace the automatic common ground you have established: given that you both support mask/vaccine mandates, you both recognize that while bodily autonomy is important and should generally be respected, there are times when it ought to be overridden for the sake of protecting the innocent and vulnerable. Then turn the conversation back to abortion: because you are convinced that human fetus is a person with equal rights, you see abortion restrictions as essentially the same. This is why you don’t find “my body, my choice” particularly persuasive in the context of abortion. Abortion restrictions, as you understand them, are an appropriate infringement on someone’s bodily autonomy. Just as the state may require me to wear a mask or get vaccinated to protect innocent persons from harm, the state can prohibit me from getting an abortion to protect innocent persons from harm. Remind them that they can’t offend you, and then ask them why they think you’re wrong. Chances are good that they will either say that abortion restrictions are more onerous than mask/vaccine mandates, or that a fetus is not a person. Now you’re back in familiar territory and you can trot out a toddler to show why the very real burdens that pregnancy can pose do not justify abortion or launch into the Equal Rights Argument to argue for fetal personhood.
If You Don’t Think there Should Be Mask/Vaccine Mandates
First off, set aside the debates over whether or not masks are effective or the vaccine is safe. Grant the assumptions that the person with whom you are talking is making so that you don’t get pulled too far away from the actual topic at hand. Your goal is to discuss the permissibility of abortion, and you may have a very limited time to do so. Agree that your position seems inconsistent at first glance, and while you don’t think it ultimately is inconsistent, that’s beside the point right now. The important take-away is that both of you actually do agree that a) the right to bodily autonomy is real and very important and b) that the right to bodily autonomy isn’t absolute. The primary controversy between you is where the lines can be drawn regarding which infringements on bodily autonomy can and cannot be required. They think that mask/vaccine mandates can justifiably infringe on bodily autonomy because they (check to make sure this is the reason!) protect innocent persons from harm. You think abortion restrictions can justifiably infringe on bodily autonomy for the same reason. Point out that this means what you really need to be talking about is whether or not a human fetus is a person. Just as above, you are back in familiar territory and can go on to present the Equal Rights Argument.
Avoid Strawmaning the Pro-Choice/Pro-Mandate Position
Lastly, if you’re talking to a pro-life person who sees the pro-choice position as inconsistent with supporting mask mandates, put on your best pro-choice hat and attempt to explain the thought process behind the apparent inconsistency to them. The pro-life/anti-COVID-mandates position genuinely looks callous or nonsensical to someone who does not think a human fetus is a person and/or thinks that abortion is necessary to ensure women have true freedom and equality. As far as they can tell, proponents of the pro-life/anti-COVID-mandate position want to prevent them from having a legitimate medical procedure that impacts no one other than themselves while insisting they have the right to do something (remain unvaccinated or maskless) that would endanger innocent, non-consenting, vulnerable persons. To add insult to injury, from their perspective, such proponents then use their own slogan—“my body, my choice”—as if it were a “gotcha” moment. It’s not a good look for the pro-life side when framed as such.
You Are Talking to a Real Person
Caveat: what I presented above is not a conversation flow-chart. Do not treat it as such. As Tim Brahm said: “Every conversation is a series of difficult judgment calls amidst prayer without ceasing.” In other words: you are talking to a particular person with particular ideas, not a robot designed to give specific scripted responses. While I think I have charitably and accurately described common positions and offered advice on responding to those positions effectively, your dialogue partner is a unique individual with his own reasons for his own sincerely held beliefs. Seek to understand your dialogue partner out of love and respect for him; do not treat him as a token representative of an entire ideology. If we did that more often, we’d see fewer charges of “pro-life inconsistency” or “pro-choice hypocrisy” in the first place.
Please tweet this article!
- Tweet: “My Body, My Choice”: Abortion, Covid Mandates, and Common Ground
- Tweet: As with the pro-choice person who doesn’t understand a pro-life/anti-mandate position, a pro-choice/pro-mandate position puzzles many pro-life people
- Tweet: I think it would only make our conversations better if we first stopped to explicitly acknowledge that we actually agree there is such a thing as a right to bodily autonomy.
The post “My Body, My Choice”: Abortion, Covid Mandates, and Common Ground originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”