LOS ANGELES — In the shadows of LA’s Art Deco town hall, musicians jammed onstage, kids had their faces painted, and families picnicked on lawn chairs. During the party, people waved flags, wore T-shirts and sold buttons — all decorated with a well-known slogan, “My Body, My Choice.”
This was not a demonstration about abortion rights. It was not a protest against the recent US Supreme Court ruling, which was overturned Roe v. Wade† It was the Defeat the Mandates Rally, a cheering rally of anti-vaccine activists in April to protest the few remaining Covid-19 guidelines, such as mask mandates for public transport and vaccination requirements for health professionals.
Similar scenes have played out across the country during the pandemic. Armed with the language of the abortion rights movement, anti-vaccination forces have come together with right-wing causes to protest covid precautions.
And they succeed. Vaccine opponents have appropriated “My Body, My Choice,” a slogan that has been inseparable from reproductive rights for nearly half a century, to fight mask and vaccine mandates across the country — including in California, where lawmakers had vowed to strictest vaccine requirements in the US
As the anti-vaccination quota took off, the abortion rights movement took hit after hit, culminating in the June 24 Supreme Court decision that overturned the federal constitutional right to abortion. The ruling leaves it to states to decide, and up to 26 states are expected to ban or severely restrict abortion in the coming months.
Now that anti-vaccine groups have claimed “My body, my choice,” abortion rights groups are moving away from it — marking a stunning annexation of political messages.
“It’s a very smart combination of reproductive rights and the way the movement is tackling the issue,” said Lisa Ikemoto, a law professor at the Feminist Research Institute at the University of California-Davis. “It amplifies the meaning of choice in the anti-vaccine space and detracts from the meaning of that word in the reproductive rights space.”
Taking the decision to vaccinate as a particularly personal one also obscures the public health implications, Ikemoto said, as vaccines are used to protect not just one person, but a community of people by stopping the spread of a disease for many people. those who cannot protect themselves.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist and pollster based in Washington, DC, said “My Body, My Choice” no longer polls Democrats well because they associate it with anti-vaccine sentiment.
“What’s really unique about this is that you usually don’t see the base from one side taking the message from the base from the other side — and having success,” she said. “That’s what makes it so fascinating.”
Jodi Hicks, president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, acknowledged that the appropriation of abortion rights terminology has worked against the reproductive rights movement. “Right now it’s frustrating and disappointing to take those messages and distract them from the work we’re doing, and use it to spread misinformation,” Hicks said.
She said the movement was already pulling away from the sentence. Even where abortion is legal, she said, some women may not choose to have one because of financial or other barriers. The movement is now focusing more on access to health care, using slogans such as “Bans Off Our Bodies” and “Say Abortion,” Hicks said.
Vaccination hasn’t always been so political, says Jennifer Reich, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado-Denver who has written a book on why parents refuse vaccines to their children. Opposition to vaccines grew in the 1980s among parents concerned about vaccination requirements at school. Those parents said they didn’t have enough information about the possible harmful effects of vaccines, but it wasn’t biased at the time, Reich said.
The issue exploded onto the political scene after a measles outbreak linked to Disneyland in 2014 and 2015 sickened at least 140 people. ‘ and ‘medical freedom’. Those opponents span the political spectrum, Reich said.
Then came covid. The Trump administration has politicized the pandemic from the start, starting with masks and stay at home. Republican leaders and white evangelicals executed that strategy on the spot, Reich said, arguing against vaccine mandates when covid vaccines were only theoretical — scaring people with rhetoric about the loss of personal choice and vaccine passport images.
They gained traction despite an apparent inconsistency, she said: Often the same people who are against vaccine requirements — arguing it’s a matter of choice — are against abortion rights.
“What’s really changed is that it’s become very partisan in the last two years,” Reich said.
Joshua Coleman leads V is for Vaccine, a group that opposes vaccine mandates. He said he uses the phrase strategically depending on the state he works in.
“In a state or city that’s more pro-life, they won’t connect to those messages. They don’t believe in full bodily autonomy,” Coleman said.
But in places like California, he takes his “My Body, My Choice” rhetoric where he thinks it will be effective, like the annual Women’s March, where he says he can sometimes make feminists think about his perspective.
The perception of the word “choice” has changed over time, says Alyssa Wulf, a cognitive linguist in Oakland, California. The word now conjures up an image of an isolated decision that doesn’t affect the wider community, she said. It may view an abortion seeker as self-centered, and a vaccine refuser as a person making a personal health choice, Wulf said.
In addition to linguistics, anti-vaccination activists play politics, deliberately trolling abortion rights groups by using their words against them, Wulf said. “I really believe there’s a bit of an ‘eff you’ in that,” Wulf said. “We’re going to take your sentence.”
Tom Blodget, a retired Hispanic instructor from Chico, California, wore a “My Body, My Choice” shirt — complete with an image of a cartoon syringe — at the Defeat the Mandates Rally in Los Angeles. It was “an ironic thing,” he said, designed to expose what he sees as the hypocrisy of Democrats who support both abortion and vaccine mandates. Blodget said he is “pro-life” and believes covid vaccines are not immunizations but a form of gene therapy, which is not true.
For Blodget and many other anti-vaccination activists, there is no inconsistency in this position. Abortion is not a personal health decision akin to getting an injection, they say it’s just murder.
“Women say they can have an abortion because it’s their body,” Blodget said. “If that’s a valid case for a lot of people, why should I take an injection of a concoction?”
About a week later and nearly 400 miles to the north in Sacramento, state lawmakers heard testimony about abortion and covid vaccine bills. Two protests, one against abortion and one against vaccine mandates, came together. Truckers from the “People’s Convoy,” a group opposing covid mandates traveling the country with their message of “medical freedom,” testified against a bill that would stop police investigating miscarriages as murders. Anti-abortion activists lined up to oppose a bill that would update reporting requirements for the state’s vaccine registry.
“My Body, My Choice” was ubiquitous: Kids petting police horses in front of the Capitol wore T-shirts with the slogan, and truck drivers watching a sword dance wore placards over their heads.
At the time, two tough legislative proposals to mandate covid vaccines for schoolchildren and most workers had already been shelved without a vote. One controversial vaccination proposal remained: a bill to allow children 12 years and older to receive covid vaccines without parental consent.
Lawmakers have since toned down the measure, raising the minimum age to 15, and it awaits crucial votes. They have turned their attention to the latest political earthquake: abortion.
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national editorial that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.
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