Where Abortion Laws Differ From Vaccine Mandates
(I’m going through some of my old, unfinished drafts and either finishing, or discarding them. Here’s one I finished.)
On principle, I am pro bodily autonomy for everyone, though I argued most people, including me, concede pregnant women surrender theirs at whatever point we confer personhood on an unborn child. I also am vehemently against all mandated medicines. It’s fair to ask me to square those two views as one person did:
If the aim is to have a coherent moral and intellectual framework rather than ad hoc justifications in service of ideology, you have to articulate (at least to yourself) a principled basis for your views.
Here’s how I see it:
If “the right to swing your fist ends at my nose,” the right to terminate a pregnancy ends at the body of an unborn the moment that unborn gets personhood. Where to draw that line is a debate beyond the purview of this piece and irrelevant to the principle itself.
Another way of looking at it is via the Kantian Categorial Imperative wherein every person is an end in himself and not merely a means to an end. A woman is not merely a means to having babies, but the baby, once personed, cannot then be subject to a cost-benefit calculation with respect to a mother’s happiness. There are now two people to consider, and it’s simply quirk of mammalian nature wherein two separate souls share one body, the duration of which depends on where we draw the personhood line.
By contrast, when it comes to mandated medicine, there is no such case. This is so even if covid vaccines actually worked to stop the spread as advertised, and that they were perfectly safe — to defend a principle, you should test it against the steel rather than straw man. Each person is an end in himself, not merely a means to control the spread of a virus, irrespective of what technocrats deem “the greater good.” The state has an interest in public health, but the line is drawn wherein a person becomes merely a means to it.
But, one might argue, your freedom to walk around unvaccinated (remember we are assuming a vaccine effective at stopping the spread) stops where your viral load gets into my lungs. How is that different than fist to face or protecting an unborn baby?
For starters, this is akin to declaring your nose everywhere, and using the principle to prevent me from moving my hands at all. You cannot claim the entire world for yourself and require me to become bloodstream-compliant in order to share it with you.
Second, even if I do not have antibodies to a particular virus, perhaps I have antibodies to other viruses you lack. I could make a similar claim to restrict your movements too. Do we want to get into the business of combing every bloodstream for antibody compliance, outsource the job to large pharmaceutical companies and make them the arbiters of fundamental rights? Rest assured, Pfizer would be quite happy with that framing, but one would have to be naive beyond comprehension to support it.
Third, if the state can order medical treatments for the greater public health, it surely would not be limited to vaccines. Imagine, for example, there were a violent crime problem, and the state determined (quite reasonably) that the perpetrators were mostly men. Let’s further imagine the State showed lowering testosterone in men reduced their tendency toward violence (I don’t know if this is really true, but stick with me.) The state might make a law requiring all men to inject a medicine that reduced testosterone for the good of society. If you refused, people could say: “Your testosterone supply ends where my personal safety begins.” It would be the same principle and, having already conceded your rights, you would be powerless to resist.
Fourth, unlike your nose which has no defense mechanism when it encounters my fist, your body has an immune system with a highly-evolved capacity for handling respiratory viruses. In fact, living in the world with other humans who have exchanged bacteria and viruses with each other over the millennia requires this, and through these encounters provides humanity with the resilience to pathogens over time. While virtually every prosperous society over the ages protected its citizens’ noses from others’ fists, none have ever conferred the right to live virus-free, and in fact, the biome, virome and human immune system are deeply complex. The wide-ranging implications of tinkering with them are not thoroughly understood by modern science.
Fifth, unlike mandated medicine, abortion laws concern what medical procedures you are *not* allowed to have, i.e., while it is an encroachment on a woman’s bodily autonomy, it is not the technocratic state forcing something *into* it, but rather letting nature run its course. That does not make it fair, but take that up with God, nature or biology (whatever organizing entity you deem responsible) that it is solely women who bear this burden.
Finally, once you open the door to mandated medicine, you’ll need criteria for safety and efficacy. Even if we created a hypothetical perfectly safe and effective mRNA covid vaccine, how do we know the next flu vaccine will be equally so? As we’ve seen not only in the last two years, but throughout the decades of large pharma drug development, those determining the safety and efficacy of a particular medicine are often captured by industry, incompetent, or, at a minimum, fallible. To green-light mandates even for safe and effective medicines is to open the door to atrocities because there is no practical way to separate interested and powerful parties from influencing the process. Persuasion, not coercion, then is the only ethical way for the state to encourage uptake of medicines it deems in the interest of public health.
The abortion debate then surely touches on personal autonomy — and no matter the rights of the unborn at the point of personhood, one should not be dismissive of the real incursion into the bodily autonomy of the mother. But while there is overlap in this discussion, the issues are far from identical. Abortion directly involves the life of the prospective child, while the harms from not vaccinating are theoretical, impractical to police and beyond the scope of the state’s authority.
One of the gravest wrongs the last two years, in my opinion, was not women with healthy eight-month pregnancies unable to change their minds, but many of those same women coerced to take medicine they didn’t want in order to keep their jobs.