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The Right to Your Body

Opposing sides of two social issues often use same argument.

Key points

  • The 'right to your own body' is an argument often used by both proponents of abortion and those opposed to mandatory vaccinations.
  • The right-to-your-own-body argument has limitations.
  • The right to your own body can be used to protect the individual or cause harm to society. Good judgment is needed in applying the principle.

Left and right seem to agree on one thing: the right to control your own body. One argument in favor of the right to an abortion is that a woman has the right to control her own body. That same argument—no one has the right over my body that I don’t freely give—is also presented by those who oppose vaccine mandates.

While there is much to be said in favor of the proposition as it tends to protect the sanctify of the person, it is mistaken to think that the self is only the body. Someone who experiences the loss of a limb or has an appendectomy is no less the self they were before the bodily modification.

The right to unqualified control of your own body is the notion that “no one has the rights over my body that I do not freely give them.” This was expressed by Faith Jones, who has recovered from abuse experienced as a child in a cult. We take away the right of someone to control their own body when they are imprisoned. Of course, there are limitations about how those imprisoned are treated, as the Tuskegee experiment made clear.

People also lose the right to determine what one does with one’s own body without consent when there is a compulsory draft. A government, as the United States did during various periods of wartime, conscripts people into military service. And once in the military, soldiers may be ordered to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. If a society legitimately decides that it needs soldiers to protect itself against threats to its integrity, that overrides the principle that people have the absolute right to control their own bodies.

The right to control our own bodies is a solid principle but it isn’t an absolute one. This becomes clear when we understand that our bodies aren’t all of ourselves and that ourselves are part of something larger, namely, the relationships we have, both close and far, spatially and temporarily. Just as there is no self as we know it without a body, there is no self as we know it without others with whom we interact. This is another way of saying that we are both physical and social beings, self-conscious beings who are at the same time fundamentally socially creatures.

We don’t get far in thinking about abortion and mandatory vaccinations if we hold onto the idea that we have an absolute right to our bodies. Every right is hedged by another: The right to free speech is limited by another’s right not to be slandered; religious rites are limited by laws against human sacrifice; the right to assembly is restricted by regulations regarding crowd control.

Individual rights need to be balanced against social rights. At the same time, social rights need to protect the sanctity of the person. How do we draw the line?

When the actions of a person threaten the rights of others, we rightfully side with the community. Of course, what society perceives as a threat must be real and it must be grave. Hurt feelings aren’t enough to censor someone but shouting fire in a crowded theater is. Similarly, society can regulate a person’s body against their will when their actions threaten the safety or lives of others. Mary Mallon, otherwise known as Typhoid Mary, was a healthy carrier who was forced to quarantine on two separate occasions, for a total of 26 years, when she continued to work as a cook because she denied she was ill.

Patients have the right to refuse medical treatment under most circumstances, but they don’t have the right to cause others to get sick if there is a reasonable way to prevent it. Vaccinations have been very effective in controlling and even eliminating deadly diseases. It is possible to argue against vaccines in particular cases (that is a scientific issue) but it isn’t a strong moral principle. In this instance, ethics is on the side of protecting society against an individual’s claim to do with their own body as they choose.

A woman’s right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy is perhaps the most vexing long-standing ethical issue in the public arena. The claim to a right to terminate a pregnancy on the grounds of the absolute right to one’s body is a dubious claim. But there are other moral grounds upon which to decide that not all pregnancies need to be carried to term, such as psychosocial and medical considerations. The primary objection to abortions is that it is the taking of an innocent human life, an assumption that issues from theology, namely the instantiation of a soul from the moment of conception. Even if one were to reject the religious basis, there is the claim that even a zygote possesses all the DNA of a human. But does that constitute personhood? While a fetus is a life with a full complement of human DNA, it isn’t a person in either the moral or legal sense. If it were, every miscarriage would be investigated for potential homicide, for example. Only an authoritarian regime would agree to such an intrusion into the lives of women and others who assist in an abortion.

The sanctity of an individual life and the ability to make decisions about one’s own body lie at the heart of a civilized society, but it is a mistaken conclusion that a person has the absolute right to do what they want with their own body. Individuals exist in relation to others, and society has an interest in protecting itself against serious threats. Where to draw the line between an individual’s interests and those of society is far from clear. The line differs from situation to situation, as can be seen in the response to vaccinations, where the line should err on the side of mandating, and to the right to an abortion, where the line should err on the side of leaving the decision up to the woman.

What is certain is that the notion of the right to control one’s own body needs to be understood as conditional, not absolute. It can be used to protect society against harms caused by individuals, but it also can be used by society to restrict the autonomy of individuals when it is equally harmful. It is a useful principle, but like all principles, good judgment needs to be used in its application.