In a clever bit of rhetoric, people opposed to COVID fighting mandates have been using pro-choice terminology. For example, a person opposed to getting the vaccine might assert “my body, my choice.” This phrase is, of course, a standard part of pro-choice language. While some people are no doubt engaged in bad faith rhetoric or trolling, the analogy between abortion rights and the right to refuse vaccination is worth considering. Those who read my previous essay can skip the discussion of the argument by analogy.
An argument by analogy will typically have two premises and a conclusion. The first premise establishes the analogy by showing that the things (X and Y) in question are similar in certain respects (properties P, Q, R, etc.). The second premise establishes that X has an additional quality, Z. The conclusion asserts that Y has property or feature Z as well. The form of the argument looks like this:
Premise 1: X and Y have properties P, Q, R.
Premise 2: X has property Z.
Conclusion: Y has property Z.
X and Y are variables that stand for whatever is being compared, such as chimpanzees and humans or apples and oranges. P, Q, R, and are also variables, but they stand for properties or features that X and Y are known to possess, such as having a heart. Z is also a variable, and it stands for the property or feature that X is known to possess. The use of P, Q, and R is just for the sake of the illustration-the things being compared might have more properties in common.
One simplified way to present the anti-vaccine (or pro-vaccine choice) analogy is as follows:
Premise 1: The right to choose an abortion is analogous to the right to choose to not be vaccinated.
Premise 2: The right to choose an abortion is supported by the left.
Conclusion: The right to choose to not be vaccinated should also be supported by the left.
While this analogy seems appealing to many anti-mask mandate folks, a key issue is whether it is a strong argument. The strength of an analogical argument depends on three factors. To the degree that an analogical argument meets these standards it is a strong argument.
First, the more properties X and Y have in common, the better the argument. This standard is based on the notion that the more two things are alike in other ways, the more likely it is that they will be alike in some other way. Second, the more relevant the shared properties are to property Z, the stronger the argument. A specific property, for example P, is relevant to property Z if the presence or absence of P affects the likelihood that Z will be present. Third, it must be determined whether X and Y have relevant dissimilarities as well as similarities. The more dissimilarities and the more relevant they are, the weaker the argument. So, is the analogy between the restrictive voter laws and mask mandates strong? To avoid begging the question by making a straw man, I will endeavor to make the best analogy I can—within the limits of truth.
The right to choose an abortion is often based on a principle of bodily autonomy; something expressed as “my body, my choice.” For those who are pro-choice, this principle warrants a woman’s choice to have an abortion—it is her body, so it is her choice. While there is considerable debate over the moral status of the aborted entity, an entity which might or might not be a person is killed in the process of an abortion. As such, this principle of bodily autonomy allows one person to kill another entity.
The right to forgo vaccination on the principle of bodily autonomy would seem to work in a similar manner. For those who are pro-choice about vaccines, this principle warrants a person’s choice to forgo vaccination-it is their body, so it is their choice. So far, so good. But, as with abortion, the choice does not just the person making the choice.
A person who forgoes the vaccine willingly puts themselves and others in avoidable risk of infection and death. But, if a woman can justly kill another entity as a matter of her choice, then one could infer that a person could thus put others at risk of illness and death. But does the comparison hold here? I contend that because of critical differences, it does not.
First, while an abortion kills an entity there is considerable moral debate about whether the entity is a person. In contrast, a person who forgoes the COVID vaccine puts those who are indisputably people at risk and, in many cases, without their choice or consent. One can, of course, argue that the entity is a person. That is, one can start up the anti-abortion debate. But this would have an interesting consequence.
If it is argued that the aborted entity is a person (or otherwise has sufficient moral status) and thus its right to life overrides the woman’s right to bodily autonomy, then the same reasoning would apply to the pro-vaccine choice argument. Their bodily autonomy does not give them the right to put others at risk. As such, a person who argues in good faith that being pro-choice about abortions is like being pro-choice about vaccines must be for both or opposed to both. So, the anti-abortion folks can only use the pro-choice bodily autonomy argument for vaccine choice in bad faith (or from confusion). In contrast, a pro-choice person need not be pro-vaccine choice. They can accept that the aborted entity is not a person or has a lower moral status than the woman while accepting the obvious fact that the people harmed by the unvaccinated are people.
Second, an abortion kills a single entity while forgoing vaccination puts everyone the person contacts at risk of illness and even death. Since those at risk are indisputably people, forgoing vaccination in a pandemic would seem worse than an abortion. One can, of course, get into a debate about assessing harms in terms of probabilities and other considerations. For example, a person who forgoes vaccination might not infect anyone and if they do, no one they infect might get ill, and if they do get ill, then they might not die. In contrast, an abortion always kills the aborted entity. This becomes a debate about the right to harm other entities and assessing harms. But, if someone argues that a person does not have the right to harm another entity on the basis of bodily autonomy, then this would apply to both abortion and vaccination: no choice in either case.
Third, there is a difference in the cost for not being able to make the choice. If a woman cannot choose an abortion, she can face great economic and social hardships. Our society is not kind to women, and it is especially unkind to mothers who lack support and resources. In contrast, the COVID vaccines are incredibly safe. Much safer than giving birth in the United States. Once again, if someone accepts the pro-vaccine choice reasoning, then they would also need to accept the pro-choice reasoning.
As such, the attempt to use pro-choice language and draw an analogy between reproductive rights and anti-vaccine rights fails logically. However, some might see it as having rhetorical value or as a bit of fun in trolling the libs with their own slogans.
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