Anti-vaccine movement attaches itself to women’s rights – it’s falling flat

The anti-vaccine movement consistently tries to incorporate other groups’ slogans and statements to increase legitimacy. Rarely, it gets some traction – for example, they have somewhat successfully convinced some Republican lawmakers that their demand to be able to send their children to school without vaccinating them are about “parental rights”, even though they have no parental authority over the classmates that could be put at risk by unvaccinated children.

More often, they fall flat. For example, the anti-vaccine movement tried to build on the black lives matter movement with their own version, “vaccine injured lives matter” – with jarring, painful results, especially from a movement that skews white and wealthy.

Recently, the anti-vaccine movement has tried to adopt two other slogans. First, it tried to claim that the “my body, my choice” statement used by pro-choice activists can be used to oppose school mandates. Second, it tried to claim that the #metoo movement means that it’s inappropriate to disbelieve mothers who claim their children were injured by vaccines.

Both claims are incorrect and jarring, though in different ways. This first post will address the “my body, my choice” claim. Part II will address the “me too” claim and the anti-vaccine movement.

anti-vaccine movement
Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash

Your child’s classmates are not part of your body

The slogan “My body, my choice” is often (though not only) used in the context of supporting abortion as a constitutional right on the grounds of female bodily autonomy – to state that a woman, as an autonomous person, can decide what is done with her body. The counterargument provided is that abortion involves another “person,” the unborn child.

But school mandates are simply unrelated to that issue. First, the daycare or school-age child is not within the woman’s body. There is no argument about mom’s bodily autonomy when it comes to vaccinating children. Even if school mandates were equivalent to forcing the child being vaccinated, and they’re not, the slogan is inapplicable.

There is a potential claim of parental autonomy, but that is a different right – and has clear constitutional limits. While parents have extensive decision-making rights over their children, those rights have never been absolute. In fact, those rights are weakest when a parent’s decision puts a child at risk.

Since the risks of vaccines are dramatically smaller than the risks of not vaccinating, parental rights to decline vaccines are not absolute, and can, in some circumstances, be limited – including through school immunization mandates.

anti-vaccine movement
Photo by Dakota Corbin on Unsplash

That, however, is secondary to the main point: since children in school and daycare are not inside the woman, “my body, my choice” does not apply to the decision to vaccinate or not vaccinate a child. The fact that some anti-vaccine activists can seriously make the argument that it does is troubling – it implies a problematic degree of identifying the child with themselves, a concerning discounting of the child’s status as an independent, right-bearing person.

Your daycare or school child is not part of your body. Your child is a human being with rights.

School mandates also affect more than just the child. Unvaccinated children are at higher risk of getting and transmitting preventable diseases, and their presence increases the risk of outbreaks, making schools less safe.

An intentionally unvaccinated child exposed to measles, for example, is very likely to get it and can transmit it to their classmates’ baby siblings (too young to vaccinate), to classmates with medical conditions that prevent vaccinating against measles (like transplant recipients) and to the few classmates that suffer vaccine failure.

Your child’s classmates are even less part of your body than your child.

In short, applying “my body, my choice” to school mandates is wrong.

My body, my choice along with #metoo are misused when the anti-vaccine movement tries to co-opt them.

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss
This article is by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy and the law. 

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Reiss is also member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease.

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