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The Trouble With Vaccine Hesitancy

A Personal Perspective: Examining the argument of my body, my choice.

Key points

  • There is debate whether a fetus is unquestionably a person, but those put at risk by the unvaccinated are persons.
  • Unless you are immune-compromised or allergic, there are no genuine risks associated with any of the COVID vaccines.
  • Unless you are immune compromised or allergic, vaccine refusal is not morally equivalent to choosing abortion.

In my last post, I explained why the argument of my body, my choice—which has become a defining feature of anti-vaccination—doesn’t work as a defense of the choice to willingly refuse to get the COVID vaccine. But some may have found that phrase, "My body, my choice," familiar. Indeed, people who are against vaccinations have borrowed it from the pro-choice movement in an attempt to simultaneously use the phrase and catch people in a double standard. “If you are in favor of a woman’s right to refuse a pregnancy," according to the argument, "you should be for my right to choose to refuse the vaccine.” The idea is that they are essentially the same kind of choice.

Does this argument work? Is the pro-vaccine but also pro-choice advocate really engaged in a double standard?

Giving the argument its due

At first glance, the argument makes some sense—or, at least, you can understand how it makes sense to the person giving it. From the point of view of someone who is staunchly pro-life, abortion is choosing to do something to your body that costs the life of another human being. In their view, if you are pro-choice, you must think that your right to bodily autonomy trumps another person’s right to life. If that’s true, then it seems that it is moral to refuse the vaccine, even if doing so actively endangers the life of others. (This, they maintain, answers the pro-vaccine argument that a person is obligated to get vaccinated (even if they don’t want to) because the vaccine works and thus protects others and prevents the development of variants).

The anti-vaccination argument, however, is essentially an argument from analogy, and arguments from analogy only hold when the things being compared don’t have relevant dissimilarities. And the dissimilarities between abortion and vaccine refusal are legion.

The issue of fetal personhood

First, there is debate over whether a fetus is unquestionably a person. But a person’s decision to not get vaccinated is, unquestionably, harmful to other persons. They are full-grown; they are fully-minded; there is no debate. And harming something that might be a person is not morally equivalent to harming something that definitely is a person.

Or, at the least, this is clear: If the pro-choice advocate doesn’t think a fetus is a person, they are not being hypocritical by being against vaccine refusal. In being pro-choice, they don’t think their right to bodily autonomy trumps the right to life of another person; they think it trumps the rights of a group of cells. Consequently, they can criticize the decision to not get vaccinated without contradiction, because that decision does endanger other persons.

The issue of bodily autonomy

There are some pro-choice advocates, however, who do think that (even if) a fetus is a person, the mother’s right to bodily autonomy outweighs the right to life of the fetus. Might they be logically forced to support the choice to refuse vaccination, even if it endangers the lives of others?

Again, the answer is no. There is still a difference between a fetus and an adult. Even if a fetus is a person, a fetus is reliant upon the mother for survival; even if she gives the child up for adoption, pregnancy requires nine months of the mother’s bodily resources and often includes morning sickness, medical risks, and a host of other possible complications. If the mother is not willing to spend her bodily resources this way, the argument goes, she is not obligated to (even if she willingly had sex). The right to bodily autonomy supersedes. If someone else needs, for example, my kidney to survive—I am not morally obligated to give it to them. Likewise, the argument goes, for a pregnant woman’s bodily resources.

A vaccine, on the other hand, unlike a pregnancy, is a minor inconvenience and comes with very little risk. The most likely “side effects” are the effects of your immune response—soreness, fever, etc.—for about a day. And unless you have an allergy or are immune-compromised—two factors that those giving vaccines always screen for—after a day, you won’t even notice. (And side effects from vaccines always occur in the first month so worries that COVID vaccines might have side effects in 10 years are unfounded.)

I can understand the argument that a person’s right to refuse a major strain on their bodily resources for months at a time can trump another person’s right to life. This is why the choice to refuse the vaccine if you are allergic to it or are immune-compromised makes sense. But the argument that a person has a right to risk the lives of others by refusing the vaccine because they “don’t want to feel puny for a day” makes no sense. Your right to not feel ill for a bit is not more important than someone else’s right to live.

Misinformation kills

The same holds for refusing vaccination in the name of misinformation about the dangers of vaccines. Yes, if thousands had died from the vaccine, or if the "rush" entailed that they were not properly tested, there would be a legitimate reason to refuse. But none of that happened; the vaccine didn't kill thousands, mRNA vaccines against coronavirus have been researched for decades, and while the “rush” did involve many methods—like making many steps that would usually happen sequentially (like testing and production) happen simultaneously—there were no “shortcuts” through safety and efficacy protocols.

The same holds true for statements such as: “I had a friend who had a stroke after being vaccinated.” "What about those young women who had blood clots from the J&J vaccine?" Given the number of people vaccinated, and the background rate of strokes in the general population, some people will have strokes after getting vaccinated. That doesn’t mean the vaccine caused it. (As I would tell my logic students, correlation doesn’t equal causation.) Far more women have blood clotting issues after taking birth control than the J&J vaccine (.09 percent vs. .00009 percent), and more people die from taking Tylenol or aspirin each year. “The risks of vaccination” are not a legitimate reason to refuse the vaccine and risk the lives of others, because there are no real risks.

But if it were moral to put others in harm’s way to avoid the minor inconvenience and non-existent risk of vaccination, it would undoubtedly moral to do so to avoid the major inconvenience and actual risks of pregnancy. If you believe in a person’s right to choose to refuse the vaccine because of its "dangers," you must believe in a woman’s right to refuse pregnancy.

Full FDA approval of the vaccines is expected very soon. When that happens, the last marginal reason for being vaccine-hesitant will disappear.

Copyright 2021, David Kyle Johnson