Reconciling vaccine mandates and abortion

On July 8, 2021, political commentator Candace Owens tweeted about her right to medical freedom and her choice to not receive the COVID-19 vaccine:

 

 

The left quickly reacted, confused how Owens could be against vaccine requirements and call herself “pro-life” at the same time: 

 

 

 

This dispute breaks down into the same set of questions: 

  1. When am I morally required to sacrifice my bodily autonomy for another being3?
  2. When am I so clearly morally required to sacrifice my bodily autonomy for another being that the government should require it?

Left

To the left, forcing a woman to carry a fetus to term is morally wrong because it violates her right to bodily autonomy. There are no other circumstances where the government requires us to allow another person to commandeer our bodies for months at a time to stay alive. Therefore we are not so clearly morally obligated to carry a fetus to term that the government should require it.

 

On the other hand, there is very limited personal risk or effort involved in getting vaccinated. But not getting vaccinated could mean exposing hundreds, if not thousands of people to increased risk of disease. Therefore we are so clearly morally obligated to get vaccinated that the government should require it.

 

Terminating a pregnancy does not put society at systemic risk, but refusing a vaccine certainly does — that’s why the government is justified in intervening for vaccines but not abortions.

 

 

 

 

Right

To the right, a fetus is undoubtedly human. Abortion should be treated as murder, which the law prohibits, since it’s an active choice that leads directly to the death of an innocent. We are therefore so clearly morally required to make the sacrifice of carrying a baby to term that the government should require it.

 

On the other hand, an individual’s choice to not get vaccinated will not necessarily or intentionally result in loss of life — in fact, forcing an individual to be vaccinated could end in the loss of their own life or health in extreme circumstances. Therefore, we are not so clearly morally required to sacrifice bodily autonomy to receive the vaccine that the government should require it.

 

That’s why it makes sense that the government should intervene on abortions, which directly result in the end of a life, while simultaneously allowing individuals to come to their own conclusions on whether vaccines are worth the potential risk.4

 

 

Perceiving ill intention in others

The fact that this debate is deeply embedded in morality means each side sees their own position as self-evident. This makes it easy to dismiss the other side’s combination of views as logically incoherent. However, this perceived logical incoherence is a product of viewing their position within our terms, not theirs

 

And since the clash of rights at hand is quite literally life and death, it’s easy to assign evil intentions to those we disagree with. Very rarely are those intentions actually malevolent. When we live in a pluralistic society of culturally diverse peoples, each of us will have a different gut reaction as to which right is more fundamental in each scenario. This difference in views is certainly a conflict of moral frameworks, but is not a product of our being “good” and others being “evil.” 

 

In fact, this conflict is good versus good. The left isn’t trying to genocide innocent children, they are trying to protect women — particularly impoverished women — from the financial and emotional burdens of unplanned pregnancy. And the right isn’t trying to selfishly promote the spread of disease, they value an individual’s right to decide for themselves whether this new technology is safe.

 

Considering, even for a moment, how another rational, moral person can come to an entirely different conclusion on these issues is important for maintaining a peaceful society. The other side are not monsters for their alternative calculations of estimated risk numbers, nor are they monsters for coming to a different conclusion on the long-debated question of when life begins.

 

Of course, they may be wrong. And if their side’s position wins there may indeed be devastating consequences. But we won’t be able to speak intelligently or make progress on these critical topics if we assume the other side’s position is a product of evil, ignorance, brainwashing, or stupidity. 

 

Examining our own intentions and ensuring that our actions are in line with them, rather than constantly questioning the intentions and actions of others, is much more likely to move society closer to truth and goodness — whatever that may look like.

 

That’s why, especially in debates around the sanctity of human life, it’s critical we begin by recognizing the humanity of those we disagree with. 

 

 

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Notes: 

  1. This piece is not speaking to the merits of choosing to get vaccinated, but focuses on vaccine requirements. This debate is more parallel to the conversation around banning abortions in that it’s a question of using state force.
  2. The plurality of Americans don’t have a cut-and-dry opinion on abortion. According to a 2020 Gallup poll, 50% believe abortion should be legal in some, but not all circumstances. Our classifications of right and left characterize the 20% who believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances and the 27% who believe abortion should be legal in all circumstances. Of those groups, there is certainly diversity in views around COVID vaccine requirements. The purpose of characterizing and unpacking the “standard” views ascribed to each side is to demonstrate that our contra-partisans do not hold their views to spite us, but in good faith and intent.
  3. We’re not here to answer the question of whether a fetus is human — that’s up to you to decide. But notice that if your answer changes given which term is used, that means you find the other side’s logic to be, at the very least, internally valid.
  4. When we read those viewpoints, we do so with our perceived risk around vaccination or abortion in mind. It’s important to remember that even if we could agree about the expected risk for each topic, there is still room to reasonably and passionately disagree about what those numbers mean in terms of policy.
Anna Tyger July 21, 2021