Here’s a bit of evidence that we live in a simulation controlled by someone with a perverse sense of humor: At the very moment that Roe v. Wade could be overturned, the American right has become obsessed with bodily autonomy and has adopted the slogan “My Body, My Choice” about COVID-19 vaccines and mask mandates.
Feminists have always known that if men — or at any rate cis men — could get pregnant, abortion would be a nonissue. The furious conservative reaction to COVID mitigation measures demonstrates this more than any hypothetical ever could. Many on the right, we can now see, believe it’s tyranny to be told to put something they don’t want on or in their bodies in order to save lives.
There is, to be fair, at least one prominent illiberal conservative, Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule, who has defended vaccine mandates, writing, “Even our physical liberties are rightly ordered to the common good of the community when necessary.” More typical on the right, however, is a paranoid sense that the vaccines are tied up with occult forces of social control.
In “Why I Didn’t Get the COVID Vaccine,” an essay in the Catholic anti-abortion journal First Things, theologian Peter Leithart quotes a book called “The Great COVID Panic”: “A very effective way to dominate people is to convince them they are sinful unless they obey.” He invokes totalitarian “biopolitical regimes” that seek to exercise power over the body: “Once upon a time, the ruler bore a sword; now, a syringe,” he writes.
Of course, many American women will soon be faced with an infinitely more invasive form of biopolitical control, courtesy of First Things’ allies. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case dealing with Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks. It’s possible that the justices could gut Roe without overturning it outright, but after they let Texas’ abortion bounty law stand, at least for the time being, I’m expecting the worst. If Roe is tossed out, most abortions will instantly become illegal in at least 12 states, and they will be severely restricted in others.
We are seeing a preview of what this world will look like in Texas, whose six-week abortion ban remains in effect. There are no exceptions for rape and incest. Women with wanted pregnancies that go tragically wrong have to either cross state lines for treatment or wait until their lives are in immediate danger.
It’s striking, the gap between the bodily impositions people on the right will accept in their own lives and those they would impose on others. When it comes to themselves, many conservatives find any encroachment on their physical sovereignty intolerable, and arguments about the common good irrelevant. Yet their movement is dragging us into a future where many women will be stripped of self-determination the moment they get pregnant. Choices, it seems, aren’t for everybody.
As feminist Ellen Willis once put it, the central question in the abortion debate is not whether a fetus is a person, but whether a woman is. People, in our society, generally do not have their bodies appropriated by the state. As we’ve seen, even mask and vaccine requirements elicit mass umbrage. Americans tend to believe that their bodies are inviolate.
“You can’t make a case against abortion by applying a general principle about everybody’s human rights; you have to show exactly the opposite — that the relationship between fetus and pregnant woman is an exception, one that justifies depriving women of their right to bodily integrity,” Willis wrote in 1985. To ban abortion is to say that pregnant women are not entitled to the authority over their physical selves that other adults expect and demand.
Mississippi’s attorney general, Lynn Fitch, who defended her state’s ban before the Supreme Court Wednesday, has also filed three lawsuits against President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates. On Nov. 12, a federal appeals court stayed one of them, the mandate dealing with companies that have more than 100 employees. Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt, a Trump appointee, wrote that the public interest is “served by maintaining our constitutional structure and maintaining the liberty of individuals to make intensely personal decisions according to their own convictions — even, or perhaps particularly, when those decisions frustrate government officials.”
Engelhardt, a former member of Louisiana Lawyers for Life, obviously doesn’t believe that all individuals should have the liberty to make “intensely personal decisions according to their own convictions.” But that doesn’t mean he’s a hypocrite. He simply appears to believe, as much of the modern right does, that there are some people who should be subject to total physical coercion, and some who should be subject to none at all.