‘On the shoulders of the unvaccinated’

In a pandemic, it’s not simply your body, your choice

Illustrated by Gabrielle Funk

I broke one of the cardinal rules of journalism. I read the comments.

This time, they weren’t attached to anything I’d written, but underneath one of Nahanni Fontaine’s Instagram posts. The NDP MLA for St. John’s took to social media earlier this month to call out the hundreds of anti-vaccine protestors who gathered outside the Health Sciences Centre (HSC) on Sept. 1.

Actually, “gathered” is putting it mildly. CBC Manitoba described a confrontational crowd that “swarmed Winnipeg’s largest hospital,” both “hampering foot traffic” and “impeding vehicles turning into the dropoff loop for the rehabilitation and clinic areas.” Many protestors held signs that read “My body, my choice,” “hostage” or simply “stop vaccine passports.”

Originally organized by a group called Canadian Frontline Nurses, this protest was held in response to news that Manitoba’s frontline workers (including nurses) who deal directly with vulnerable people must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of October or undergo regular testing.

However, many quickly drew parallels between these protestors and the anti-abortion proponents often seen outside reproductive heathcare centres like the HSC. “These people protesting ‘my body, my choice’ in front of HSC today are the same people who protest against people accessing abortion services in the very same facility,” Fontaine’s post read.

Her observation, as many irate, vitriolic commenters pointed out, is somewhat flawed. There’s no way to know whether the people who protested Manitoba’s vaccination mandate outside the HSC are also the folks who decry abortion at the same hospital. But many of these protestors share the same conservatism, misguided views on bodily autonomy and outright disregard for human rights.

As of Sept. 1, the same day anti-vaccination protestors blocked patients from entering the HSC, Texas lawmakers banned abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy – before most people learn they’re pregnant.

The coronavirus pandemic and abortion access are both public-health issues with one crucial difference. “A person who doesn’t want to be pregnant harms nobody by choosing an abortion,” Eva Wiseman writes for The Guardian. “ Making that choice does not result in (their) breathing abortions on to six strangers. But by refusing a vaccine, a person is putting others at risk.”

“The burden of this pandemic now rests on the shoulders of the unvaccinated,” Anita Sircar, an infectious-disease physician, writes for the Los Angeles Times. It rests “on those who are eligible to get vaccinated but choose not to, a decision they defend by declaring, ‘Vaccination is a deeply personal choice.’ But perhaps never in history has anyone’s personal choice affected the world as a whole as it does right now.”

It’s ignorant at best and malicious at worst to co-opt the “my body, my choice” slogan from reproductive healthcare advocates and use it to promote a blatant disregard for public safety.

David Cole and Daniel Mach summarize this best in The New York Times: “Vaccines are a justifiable intrusion on autonomy and bodily integrity. That may sound ominous, because we all have the fundamental right to bodily integrity and to make our own healthcare decisions. But these rights are not absolute. They do not include the right to inflict harm on others.” And while some protestors outside hospitals like the HSC may assert otherwise, there’s nothing “pro-life” about refusing vaccines.

Danielle Doiron is a creative and educator who splits her time between Winnipeg, Philadelphia and small Midwestern towns. Catch her reading, procrastinating or defending the pineapple on her pizza.

Published in Volume 76, Number 3 of The Uniter (September 23, 2021)

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