Last week, environmental activist and anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. got on the phone with the Daily Beast to explain why he and actress Jessica Biel were lobbying against legislation that would limit medical exemptions from vaccines in California. Kennedy denied Biel’s association with the anti-vaxx movement—which had been revealed earlier that day in a Jezebel report—and told the outlet that the actress is “for safe vaccines and medical freedom.” In other words, he added: “My body, my choice.”
At a Senate hearing in March, anti-vaxxers wore t-shirts similarly declaring, “I call the shots: My body, my choice. My kids, my choice.” MoveOn.org petitions use “My body, my choice” to call for signatories to oppose mandatory vaccinations for people whose health degrees require in-clinic training. And groups like Texans for Vaccine Choice use slogans like “the choice should be yours” to promote the “preservation of personal liberties.”
Over time, “choice,” a term with long-established roots in the movement for abortion rights, has become a rhetorical weapon wielded by anti-vaxxers, who say the two causes are linked by a struggle for rights to control one’s own body.
“We were definitely cognizant of how people receive the word ‘choice,’” said Christina Hildebrand, the founder and president of Voice for Choice, an organization opposed to mandatory vaccinations. “But in this day and age it goes beyond the abortion rights movement—it’s about bodily autonomy. You should know what goes into your body, and have a choice in that.”
The problem is, according to medical professionals, choosing whether or not to vaccinate yourself or your child isn’t merely a personal choice—scientifically speaking, it’s a matter of public health, while abortion is not. Someone's choice about whether or not to have an abortion doesn't potentially affect the health of the people they interact with, while choosing not to get vaccinated does.
The concept of herd immunity dictates that a certain number of people in a population must be immunized in order to eliminate the spread of disease. It’s by these means that once-common and life-threatening diseases like smallpox have been eradicated in the United States.
It’s also the phenomenon that helps explain a sudden outbreak of the measles in pockets of the country, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirming 1,044 cases of the measles across 28 states—the largest number of reported cases since the disease was declared eliminated in the U.S. nearly two decades ago. The CDC noted that since more people are skipping measles vaccinations, the disease is able to spread again.
There are people who should not get the measles vaccine for CDC-approved medical reasons (pregnant people, people with weakened immune systems, children under age 1) and those people could get measles from someone who chose not to get vaccinated because of personal beliefs.
“When you’re exposed to someone who is unvaccinated, that takes away your personal freedom,” said Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “You’re infringing on other people’s choice” when you forego vaccination, he said.
Nonetheless, people like Hildebrand insist there’s little separating arguments in favor of abortion rights and those advocating for “vaccine choice,” the term she prefers over anti-vaxxer.
It’s “hypocritical,” she said, that Democrats support people’s right to choose abortion, but not their right to abstain from vaccination. Alluding to the legislation in the California State Assembly, as well as a recent New York bill that passed into law eliminating religious exemptions for vaccines, she continued: “When it comes to vaccines, Democrats are the ones pushing the vaccine mandates—suddenly it’s not ‘your body, your choice’ anymore. Suddenly the state has a say.”
Nathan Stormer, a professor at the University of Maine who specializes in abortion rhetoric, said it’s clear that anti-vaxxers have much to gain from coopting the terms and slogans canonical to the pro-choice movement.
“Part of what is powerful about the language of ‘choice’ is that it connects control over our bodies with the political,” he said. “It gets to this idea that having a body is the basis of having rights.”
Stormer said using the slogan allows the anti-vaxx movement to align itself with a broader political movement, whereas vaccination had been traditionally thought of as an apolitical matter, coinciding solely with public health and safety. And language condemning government intervention into personal health decisions has only become more prevalent with recent—and increasingly extreme—bans on abortion, making cries of “my body, my choice” a resonant catchphrase for a majority of Americans who support abortion rights.
That anti-vaxxers have coalesced around the language of choice could be harmful to the pro-choice movement, Stormer continued, and the malleability of the word “choice” is why some supporters of abortion rights have urged the movement to embrace stronger and more precise rhetoric and identify itself as "pro-abortion,” or situate abortion as a human right.
The vulnerability of the pro-choice movement’s rhetorical tentpole is hardly unique. The anti-vaxx movement has also appropriated the language of the #MeToo movement, by calling on lawmakers to “believe women”—in this case, mothers—when they say they know what’s best for their children, and by saying "I do not consent" to vaccines. “Democrats say they want women to speak out [on sexual assault], and yet on the vaccine issue they’re saying these parents, most of them mothers, are crazy or too passionate and emotional,” Hildebrand said.
Stormer said the use of "choice" when it comes to vaccines could have implications beyond public health. “There’s no political language that’s ironclad against appropriation,” he said. “But what it does in this case is weaken the abortion rights appeal.”
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