It’s hard to find a silver lining in the current Covid-19 spike, but here’s one small victory: In voicing their opposition to mask mandates and vaccine requirements, Republicans — in particular, Republican men — have discovered the importance of bodily autonomy.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, spoke to CNBC about vaccine mandates earlier this month, saying, “I believe in individual freedom. … I think you ought to have the choice to make your own medical decisions with your doctor.”
“We will make our own health choices,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wrote in a Fox News op-ed.
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, tweeted that he and his family "chose every vaccine on our terms.”
“What happened to medical privacy and freedom of choice?” Fox News host Sean Hannity asked. According to Hannity’s colleague Tucker Carlson, businesses requiring workers to vaccinate is akin to “medical Jim Crow.”
It’s not just Republican officials who are singing this tune. According to summer polling by Politico and Harvard University, a majority of Republicans disagree with government- or employer-based vaccine requirements.
But one could easily imagine the same sentiments coming out of the mouths of a very different subset in American politics: abortion-rights advocates.
Now that Republicans have made clear their opposition to the government mandating health care decision-making, perhaps they should turn their outrage toward the 16 states that require women to undergo an emotionally traumatic and physically invasive ultrasound before having an abortion.
Or maybe they will recognize the incongruity of opposing mask and vaccine mandates while at the same time demanding a woman carry a fetus to term against her will. (Indeed, if the current public health mandates to stop the spread of Covid-19 were as onerous as the same abortion restrictions pushed by conservative lawmakers, they might even get some liberals to jump on board.)
The newfound GOP opposition to health care mandates exposes a glaring hypocrisy. After all, a party that believes so strongly in individual freedom and stopping the heavy hand of government should, at least theoretically, be opposed to health restrictions that take decision-making away from a woman and give it to the state.
Conservatives will argue they are making an exception because of their reverence for the life of the unborn. That’s not an unreasonable position, but it ignores an obvious question: Why not take the same position when it comes to the living and the threat Covid-19 poses?
In May, after signing an executive order that prevented local officials from enforcing mask mandates, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted that “Texans, not gov’t, should decide their best health practices.” As MSNBC columnist Laura Bassett pointed out at the time, this came only one day before he signed legislation that imposed one of the most onerous abortion bans in the country. It’s impossible to square these two positions without taking into account the role of politics.
But there is perhaps another issue going on here. Men are among the loudest critics of mask and vaccine mandates. In spring 2020, The New York Times reported that according to polling, men were less likely than women, by an 11-point margin, to have worn a mask outside their home. One of the most striking sets of news stories over the past several weeks has been that of prominent anti-vaccine advocates (usually men) getting sick and suddenly waking up to the reality that Covid-19 is real and that vaccines save lives.
One might imagine that the experience of watching more than 620,000 of their fellow citizens die from Covid-19 — and vaccinated people overwhelmingly not getting sick — would be enough to convince them. But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the same people who refuse to mask up to protect others would not take Covid-19 seriously until it affects them directly. It is as if opposition to abortion rights is driven by those who view the unborn in abstract terms and child-rearing as a problem for others to master.
This is not to say many opponents of abortion are not genuine in their moral and ethical opposition. The same, I suppose, can be said for those who oppose vaccine and mask mandates. But living in a society requires putting ourselves in the shoes of others — and even sacrificing some of our individual freedom for a larger and greater good. Wearing a mask and getting vaccinated is, first and foremost, about protecting ourselves, but it’s also about safeguarding those around us — both those we love and those we barely know.
Upholding a woman’s right to choose is about recognizing that even one’s personal opposition to abortion cannot supersede the judgment of a woman to know what’s best for her and her unborn child. It’s great that Republican officeholders and media personalities are recognizing the value of bodily autonomy. If only they would do empathy next.