My body, my choice.

It is such a simple phrase, yet it sums up an attitude that seems quintessentially modern and yet sad as well.

Over the years, “my body, my choice” became a slogan for the pro-abortion movement. The idea that a woman was the master of her body included mastery over the unborn child that she carried inside of her.

“My body, my choice” fits a particularly modern mindset. It was a phrase that could be stretched to include everything from a teen’s demand for a tattoo to a grandmother’s request for physician-assisted suicide. It is my choice, regardless of social impact or consequences, and the only person who can make that determination is me.

So it is a disturbing irony that people who may think they have little in common with abortion proponents or suicide advocates would adopt the same slogan to defend their unwillingness to take a COVID-19 vaccine. “My body, my choice” has become one of the catchphrases for some in the anti-vaccine and anti-mandate movements. Despite whatever social need there is to stop a public health crisis, what matters is not the recommendation of health experts or the decisions of political or military leaders, but one’s own preferences.

Of course, many vaccine opponents have legitimate reasons to seek exemption to vaccine mandates. Although the Catholic Church has deemed it “remote material cooperation,” the fact that cell lines derived from fetuses aborted in the early 1970s were used in testing and in some cases development of many vaccines and medicines is of great moral concern for some. The Church has urged scientists to refrain from using these cell lines.

Some are distrustful of the science, distrustful of what they see as an overreach of government mandates, or simply more confident that their own immunity from having had the virus will protect them.

For those who are following their conscience in these matters, it is important to stay informed and of course to follow standard protocols for social distancing to protect those who are most vulnerable. For the toll of the pandemic is truly horrific: One in 500 Americans has died from COVID-19. On the national mall, 700,000 white flags fluttered in commemoration of those who died in just 19 months, a grim toll that continues to climb, more often than not claiming the lives of the unvaccinated and the most vulnerable.  

While there are legitimate reasons of conscience for opposing vaccines that must be respected, I don’t believe that the argument “my body, my choice” is one of them.

The response to the pro-abortion argument “my body, my choice” is that it is not just your body. There is another human being alive in you who is biologically and genetically distinct. The idea that that human person lives or dies based on the desire of another, more powerful person is morally wrong.

And the response to those who demonstrate against vaccine or mask mandates while shouting, “My body, my choice,” is similar. It is not just about you and your body. If you could be guaranteed not to be an asymptomatic carrier, if you could be guaranteed not to spread the disease to someone who was immunocompromised, if you could be guaranteed that you would not kill or cripple another person, then perhaps “my body, my choice” would make some sense. If you could guarantee that the only person hurt would be yourself, perhaps it would be tolerable.

Death of loved ones or strangers is not the only risk. Long-term or even permanent damage is an under-reported phenomenon of COVID-19: Long haulers, those who suffer from COVID-19 aftereffects for months and years, or those whose bodies have been so damaged they may be on oxygen or in need of intensive care for the rest of their lives.

The slogan is itself reflective of a kind of street-corner libertarianism, a folk philosophy that crosses the left-right political divide. It makes personal autonomy the highest good, and in so doing it challenges notions of the common good and social justice. It is a philosophy no longer just of the well-off and self-sufficient, but of populist resentments. And it poses a grave threat for the Church.

Laying down one’s life for another is the Christian response. We follow a savior who offered up his life for the many. The models for Christian sacrifice today are the doctors and nurses caring for the grievously ill who fill the ICUs and, too often, the body bags. The Church is asking all of us to consider what is best for the common good, what sacrifices we can make to protect the weakest.

We all struggle to make the best choices in a difficult situation, following the science and following our conscience. But let’s put aside the cheap slogans that reflect an ideological selfishness.

In the words of the pro-life movement, let’s choose life: Seeking the best for our community and mindful always of the weakest and most vulnerable among us.