Deconstructing ‘My Body, My Choice’ Hypocrisy on Both Sides
“To show partiality in judgment is not good.” —Proverbs 24:23
By Dr. Luke Conway
There is nothing more dangerous to authoritarianism than a principle applied impartially.
Authoritarianism thrives on group bias. Thus, one of the cures for authoritarianism is a willingness to be fair to your opponents, to judge both your own group and their group with the same lens. Like a fungus exposed to constant fresh air, authoritarianism simply cannot survive when a sustained principle is fairly applied to all sides. The danger of authoritarianism is one of the many reasons that to show partiality in judgment is not good.
Given the current tendencies for extremists across the political spectrum to spiral into an authoritarian abyss, it is worth remembering this sobering proverb as we debate the key issues of our time. Anytime we approach any issue — even ones we care passionately about — we should show no partiality in judgement. We should apply the same principles to both our side and theirs.
Nowhere is the need for impartiality more evident than when we consider the twin issues of abortion and vaccine mandates. Although not necessarily related, these two issues have been brought together by one of the most curious linguistic turnabouts in history. For most of my lifetime, “my body, my choice” was the rallying cry of liberals who wanted abortion rights. Yet, during COVID, this same phrase was co-opted by conservatives to resist vaccine mandates. This was purposeful: Most conservatives were adopting the phrase polemically, with irony, to turn it back against pro-choice liberals. The strategy seems to have partially worked: In fact, some liberals have even begun to distance themselves from the “my body, my choice” motto as a result.
Along the way, both political groups have argued that they have more of a right to the phrase than the other side. Yes, there were intelligent commentaries. Yes, there were a smattering of thoughtful debates. However, in the main, from where I sit, rather than these two concurrent usages of “my body, my choice” sparking self-reflection, this linguistic overlap appears instead to have largely inspired blind spots on both sides. To the outsider, the result has sometimes looked like rather bizarre theater. Conservatives on the ground appear to scream “my body, my choice” for vaccine mandates and then turn around and oppose abortion without a great deal of thought; liberals on the ground appear to scream “my body, my choice” for abortion and then turn around and support vaccine or mask mandates without considering the deeper implications. In both cases, each side seems largely to use the principle when it suits them, and then simply ignore the clear application of the principle when it doesn’t.
If we don’t want to devolve into authoritarianism, we need to dig more deeply. We need a discussion revolving around a consistent set of principles applied equally to liberal and conservative positions on these issues. With that goal in mind, I offer a few thoughts here. I do not view these comments as either original or definitive answers, but rather — as someone who falls into one of the “hypocritical” boxes that opposes both abortion and vaccine mandates — an attempt to prod discussion with a few summary thoughts.
Let’s start with an obvious truth: “My body, my choice” cannot be absolute across all times and all places, and therefore we must consider when it applies. On the one hand, most Americans will likely cede that the government should not decide what brand of peanut butter you put into your body. On the other hand, if you randomly punch a stranger in a mall, I doubt a judge would find a “my body, my choice” defense especially compelling. You don’t have the right to merely do anything you want with your body, because often what you do with your body affects others. So, one reasonable starting point is that for every issue, we have to weigh the potential costs to individuals of losing their freedom against the potential costs to other people around them if they have their freedom.
Let’s take each of those in turn as applies to our present case. In the aftermath of the Dobbs Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe, liberal Jessica Tarlov noted that “my body, my choice” arguments were more impactful in the case of abortion (compared to vaccine mandates) because the cost to the individual person who loses her freedom is greater in the case of abortion. Tarlov notes, for example, that it is far more of a hardship to carry a baby to term against one’s will — and to subsequently be responsible for that child — than it is to get a vaccine. In her words: “I would still argue that a shot in your arm is a little bit different than a commitment to a person for 18 years.”
There likely isn’t anyone in the country more opposed to vaccine mandates than I am; but Tarlov is largely right here. It almost certainly is more of a hardship on a woman losing her freedom for an abortion than it is for someone losing their vaccine freedom. Vaccines are not without risk (something liberals have long been aware of — many people forget that pre-COVID, the “anti-vaxx” movement was largely on the left), but one has to say that on balance, forcing someone to take a vaccine shot is arguably less of a hardship than forcing them to carry a baby to term and beyond.
On the other hand, when we turn our attention to the effects of freedoms on others, the issue isn’t as favorable to liberals. COVID vaccines may reduce the likelihood of harm to those who take them, but they almost certainly do little to stop the spread of COVID. As a result, granting one individual the freedom to avoid taking vaccines will have very little impact on other people. If I take a COVID vaccine, it may or may not help me; but it almost certainly will not help you, or anyone in my orbit. The larger effect of my freedom on other people is thus very minimal. It may not cost me much to get a shot, but it doesn’t cost anyone else much if I have the freedom not to get it.
As conservatives have consistently noted, abortion fails the second half of our test spectacularly. Almost by definition, abortion has a 100% kill rate. Every time a woman exercises her right to an abortion, a fetus dies. Now, part of the liberal argument has always been that the fetus doesn’t have the same status as a regular person. But to understand the current cost/benefit analysis, we don’t need to spend hours debating the exact personhood status of the fetus. Rather, let’s focus on something most people can agree on: A fetus is a living thing. That’s probably why the vast majority of the world — including most liberal European nations — effectively ban elective abortions after 20 weeks, and why most Americans oppose abortion after 15 weeks. As a result, it seems clear that a person who has an abortion generally does a lot more harm than a person who refuses a vaccine.
Where does this leave us? If we dissect the “my body, my choice” linguistic collision by applying consistent principles, we get a mixed bag. Liberal positions score higher when considering hardships to the person whose freedom is at stake; conservative positions score higher when considering hardships to others who might be affected by their freedom. I offer these (undoubtedly imperfect) thoughts not to provide definitive answers, but as a means of prodding reflection to combat authoritarianism. The “my body, my choice” hypocrisy provides a moment for all of us to learn a lesson. It might be good for both sides to stop shouting at each other, and instead bring reflective, fair, and principled arguments.
Indeed, reflecting on the linguistic “my body, my choice” collision that is the subject of this piece had an impact on my own views. It didn’t make me like abortions more, but it highlighted the need to apply the same standard across issues. Vaccine mandates reminded me that there is always a cost to taking away personal freedoms. Because I want to set a high bar for restricting my own freedoms in the case of vaccine mandates, I think we should be careful in setting that bar for other areas. Liberals have a point. I think we should consider the freedom of the pregnant mother just like we should consider the freedom of the unvaccinated person. Those aren’t the only things in each cost/benefit equation; but if we are going to consider them at all, they should be considered equally on all sides.
If we don’t — if we continue to twist any old principle to our advantage without considering it fairly — authoritarianism will ultimately have its day. And if that happens, we all lose.
Dr. Lucian (Luke) Gideon Conway III is a Professor of Psychology and a Fellow with the Institute for Faith & Freedom at Grove City College. He is the author of over 85 articles, commentaries, and book chapters on the psychology of politics and culture. Dr. Conway’s research has been featured in major media outlets such as the Washington Post, New York Times, Huffington Post, Psychology Today, USA Today, the Ben Shapiro Podcast, and BBC Radio. Further, he has written opinion pieces for outlets such as The Hill, Heterodox Academy, and London School of Economics U.S. Centre. He is the author of the book Complex Simplicity: How Psychology Suggests Atheists are Wrong About Christianity. You can follow him on twitter @LGConwayIII, on ResearchGate, or on Google Scholar.
Start a conversation using these share links: