Bodily Autonomy, Consent, and Vaccines

Something I’m getting kind of tired of is the argument from the anti-vaxxer crowd that their choice has to do with bodily autonomy and medical consent.

Well, yes. Obviously. But the thing is, the issue of consent is never a black and white thing. Yes, in the realm of ending rape culture and stopping sexual assault, the rallying cry has become “anything other than an enthusiastic yes is a no”. Which is a good rallying cry! And a good, overall basic explanation of what consent is when it comes to things like rape and sexual assault. I am totally for that as a rallying cry, don’t get me wrong. It just doesn’t cover things like informed consent — where you might enthusiastically consent to someone but only because you don’t know they are knowingly passing on an STI to you, and yes, that is a sexual violation. (I wouldn’t call it rape, because I try to reserve that word for specific instances in the interest of not muddying its meaning.) Or other thorny issues regarding knowing the whole story before consenting. Consent can be violated in more ways than just ignoring a no or not hearing an enthusiastic yes. It’s more complex. It’s a conversation; it’s communication; it’s an ongoing process.

And honestly I wouldn’t even bring UP rape or sexual assault, except that I know if I don’t someone will in the comments, trying for a “gotcha!” But here’s the thing: bodily autonomy and consent may be topics that are connected to both the areas of sex and medical choices, but you cannot make an equivalency between sexual assault and being told to vaccinate. They are not the same thing. (Nor can you make an equivalency between rapists and anti-vaxxers, and if you do in the comments the banhammer is coming out and squashing you like a bug that’s just crawled into my kitchen.)

When we’re talking about bodily autonomy and consent as it relates to vaccinations, specifically, we’re talking about how we live and interact with other humans. We’re talking about everyday interactions with people; we’re talking about keeping our communities healthy and hale. This is an area where your bodily autonomy and right to consent intersects with mine.

Imagine something for me. Imagine it’s the future, and extreme body mods and nanotech is the norm. Imagine you go and get a bodymod that makes it so every time you breathe out, you release toxins into the air, and every time you sweat, the toxins pool on your skin, passing onto everything and everyone you touch. Imagine the toxins can live for a very long time after they’ve left your body, increasing the odds they’ll poison people who pass through areas hours after you’ve left.

Now, these toxins aren’t 100% lethal. Many people are immune, and won’t even notice they’ve been poisoned. Their bodies will fight it off. Other people will get very sick for a few weeks, but will ultimately survive. But there are people — notably among them the very young, the very old, and the immunocompromised, who will not only get very, desperately ill, and suffer greatly, but they will ultimately succumb to the poison and die. Your toxin will be fatal to them.

Well, bodily autonomy, you say. You have the right to get a bodymod — and yes, you do. This is true. You have the legal right to get a bodymod as dangerous as a toxin that will kill a sizeable percentage of the people you encounter. And a law preventing you from getting that bodymod would, yes, interfere with your consent, with your right to exercise your autonomy.

But the people around you have the right to consent, the right to bodily autonomy, too. And your bodymod infringes upon their rights.

The thing is, you can cry bodily autonomy when it comes to changes you make your body that affect other people. You can, and you’d be right. Just as they can say “I did not consent to this change you made that affects me” to you; just as the change you make or refuse to make will cause them to react in ways you might not like.

If you choose not to vaccinate your child or yourself, you are exercising your rights, and no, society or the medical community cannot force you to get a vaccination. They cannot violate your consent.

But your choice does affect other people, it does violate their consent and bodily autonomy, and it will have consequences.

The consequences could be as mild as your friends not wanting their children around you or your kids, or having your kids expelled from public school/not allowed to attend. Or if you’re quiet about your choice, and let your unvaccinated child play with your friends’ children, you could be responsible for your friend’s child becoming sick or dying. You could pass on Rubella (German measles) to your pregnant friend and cause them to miscarry. You could pass on a disease to someone undergoing cancer treatment, who is immunocompromised, and you could not only compromise their care but you could potentially kill them.

That will be on you. It will be your fault. And you will have violated the bodily autonomy and consent of the people you infect — possibly people you care about.

Bottom line, when it comes to diseases like measles, or whooping cough — diseases we have vaccinations for and have for years and years, and diseases that are easily passed on to others* — if you make the choice not to vaccinate, you should also make the choice to not interact with other people. Move to a cabin in the wilderness and grow your own food.

Because I don’t consent to getting infected by you or your kid. I don’t consent to you coughing measles onto me and making me ill, because my fucking vaccination didn’t take the first 2 times. (I’m going for a third, because fuck if I want measles. But gods know if it’ll work.) And when I have kids of my own, I sure as hell don’t consent to your unvaccinated brood making them ill.

It is about bodily autonomy and consent. It’s just about more than yours, because you’re not the only people on the planetWe have to share this place with you.

So keep those consequences in mind.


*I’ve also seen the argument from anti-vaxxers about how they should be able to refuse vaccines because “what about Gardisil or Cervarix, which are new???” I want to emphatically state here that those vaccines are not what we are talking about. We are talking about vaccines for easily passed diseases, vaccines that have been around for ages. Gardisil and Cervarix are new and they protect against strains of an STI that can cause cancer, specifically. That is an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT THING, and honestly bringing up them up in a vaccine argument is a strawman. Of COURSE you should be able to refuse Gardisil or Cervarix. Of COURSE they shouldn’t be compulsory. They are NEW, the companies have engaged in questionable practices in getting the vaccines out, and cervical cancer can’t be spread by a cough in a waiting room for fuck’s sake. Honestly I can’t even believe I need to explain this.