The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

The Limits of My Body, My Choice

One of the odd spectacles in current American “conservative” circles is seeing mental zombies justifying their contempt for science and medicine by chanting, “my body, my choice.” It as if they heard this slogan, and ignoring context, just spew it out as the closest thing to an intellectual argument they can muster.

Clark County (Las Vegas) School District employee Heather Taylor — I hope she’s not a teacher — told a local news station, “Don’t force it on us. It should be our choice. My body, my choice.” The leader of this ragtag bunch, Brandon Burns, intoned, “At the end of the day, we all just want to live our lives, unrestricted, and being able to have the freedom to do what we want.”

Now, what’s wrong with that? Plenty.

On the surface it this sounds almost libertarian, but it isn’t. Libertarianism is not and never was about “the freedom to do what we want.” It always came with provisos. This is a version of libertarianism more befitting a child than a full grown adult. It’s only part of the principle, not the whole thing. Pardon me, as I quote a few figures in the history of classical liberalism or libertarianism to outline the difference.

Penn Jillette, well-known libertarian, magician and skeptic, put it this way in regards to refusing to mask up: “It’s risking the people around you which I don’t see a way that that’s your right.” Thomas Jefferson made a similar point, “Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will. But rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.” Elsewhere Jefferson noted, “No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him.”

Herbert Spencer — who was never a social Darwinist — said, “Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.” Ayn Rand warned that it is “the ignorant who think that an individualist is a man who says: ‘I’ll do as I please at everybody else’s expense.’ An individualist is a man who recognizes the inalienable individual rights of man — his own and those of others.” Oscar Wilde put it that freedom is “being yourself so long as you don’t hurt another’s physical person or property.” James Fennimore Cooper described political liberty as “leaving to the citizen as much freedom of action and of being as comports with order and the rights of others…”

Freedom is not absolute, but rights are. If your rights are respected you have freedom, but freedom doesn’t grant some the power to deny others their rights. It means you may act as you wish provided you do not put the life, liberty or property of others at risk. The risk you impose can be either intentional or unintentional — that only determines your liability — but it doesn’t change your obligation to respects the equal rights of others.

The old saying, “You right to swing your fist ends at my nose,” illustrated the basic principle of libertarianism or classical liberalism — your rights can never include actions you take that put the same rights of others at risk. If you actions do put others at risk of losing their rights — obviously including losing their life — your obligation is to take all reasonable precautions to avoid doing so.

The editorial board of the Tri-City Herald said it well:

“Ethically, people can do as they please as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. That’s not the case with COVID. Unvaccinated people who mingle with others are a danger to others.

Long ago the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a state’s authority to mandate vaccinations and Jabobsen v Massachusetts has been used time and again to justify it.

The court case from 1905 centered on whether the state could force people to get the small pox vaccine, and in the end the court ruled that it could, noting that, “The liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States does not import an absolute right in each person to be at all times, and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint.”

What is particularly bizarre is Covidots on the right, in general, simply do not believe in “My body, my choice.” They stood up for sodomy laws, which criminalized private sexual practices between consenting adults. They didn’t think “my body, my choice” allowed for interracial marriage and right this moment they are working overtime to strip reproductive freedom from every woman in the country. They are quoting a slogan they violate constantly in order to assert they can put others at risk. One can excuse Vogue writer Molly Jong-Fast for finding this confusing:

The first time I saw a photo of an anti-vaxxer with a sign that read “My Body My Choice,” I was sort of puzzled. I thought perhaps the photo editor had used the wrong image to accompany the story — but then I saw that the sign also included a picture of a mask with a red line across it. No, these people weren’t protesting a government that was regulating uteruses, a government that was telling women when they could end a pregnancy that was going on in their own bodies. They were instead protesting a simple and painless public-health measure. They were mad at the idea of having to wear a piece of fabric on their faces. For this particular group, government regulation was fine unless it was regulating them — at which point it became a horrible infringement on their constitutional rights.

Your right to act (freedom) is limited by the rights of others. No one thinks your “liberty” allows you to take over someone else’s home as your own. Your right to drive doesn’t mean you can grab any car you fancy, whether you own it or not. This is the obvious difference between reproductive freedom and mitigation efforts to reduce the spread of Covid.

Neither pregnancy nor abortion is contagious. A woman choosing to give birth doesn’t impose unwanted pregnancies on other women, nor does a woman who chooses not giving birth. Her choice doesn’t infringe on your rights in any way, shape or form, either intentionally or unintentionally. Her body, her choice.

On the other hand a readily contagious, deadly disease can easily spread to others. We’ve seen this over and over as Covidiots meet at what turns into a superspreader event. A few people with the virus — who may not have any symptoms at all — spread the virus to others, some of whom die because of it. Masks and vaccinations are a low cost means to protect the most central right of all — the right of each individual to their own life. Deadly viruses stamp out that right for millions.

Not everyone who is at risk can medically get vaccinated and while wearing a mask helps protect others, it does much less to protect the wearer. When I wear a mask I am showing I respect your right to life, when you refuse you show contempt for my rights and those of others. My vaccination helps protect me but it also helps protect you and others as well. It shows I respect the rights of others. Refusing a vaccination, without a valid medical reason, is spitting on the rights of others and shows contempt.

Unlike pregnancy, when it comes to a virus there is no such thing as my body, my choice. You choice may get you infected, but the virus you spread can kill others quite easily, as 721,000 corpses prove.


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A blog for the Moorfield Storey Institute: a liberaltarian think tank.

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James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.