On Saturday, hundreds of people gathered at the Texas State Capitol building in Austin at a protest, organized by conspiracy theorists, to urge the state to lift its coronavirus restrictions. There were all the symbols you might expect, including pro-Trump hats and banners, American flags, and signs referring to efforts to contain the virus that’s killed more than 40,000 Americans in two months as “tyranny.”
But one photo stands out: A young woman holding a small American flag and a white poster showing a crossed-out surgical mask and emblazoned with the words “My body, my choice, Trump 2020.”
It’s just the latest instance of people co-opting the abortion rights rallying cry as if it’s a clever “gotcha”—that it’s somehow hypocritical to support both people’s right to choose to have a medical procedure and also requirements that protect public health, like wearing face coverings during a pandemic.
It’s not limited to Texas, either: At a Thursday protest in Virginia, someone held a sign reading “My Body, My Choice to Work.” One protestor even told the Washington Post that she had a hard time squaring Governor Ralph Northam’s public health orders with his support of abortion rights.
“I have the right to choose to go out if I choose to expose myself. It’s my body,” said Susan Moffat, 74. “It’s funny how you trust people to kill a baby but you don’t trust them to leave their home.”
Anti-vaxxers have famously weaponized the language of choice in an attempt to prove their case that refusing vaccination is simply exercising their right to control their bodies. It’s unsurprising that anti-vaxxers also had a presence at Saturday’s event, holding signs that read “vaccine mandates violate bodily autonomy”; such groups have been concerned for weeks that the pandemic will lead to mandatory vaccination.
But choosing not to wear a mask or not to stay home is extremely unlike the choice to have abortion—”my body, my choice” can neither be applied to vaccinations or emergency orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Abortion is entirely a personal decision that—and this is key—doesn’t affect the health of your neighbor, or your grocery store clerk, or your bus driver. Abortion is not a public health issue, while measles and coronavirus absolutely are. Your body, in other words, is a disease vector.
Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, explained to VICE last summer the flaws in the logic that opting out of vaccines is an exercise of people’s freedom, and it easily applies to the coronavirus: “When you’re exposed to someone who is unvaccinated, that takes away your personal freedom,” Offit said. “You’re infringing on other people’s choice” when you forego vaccination, he said.
The Texas protest, titled “You Can’t Close America,” was organized by InfoWars host Owen Shroyer (InfoWars’ Alex Jones was there to speak to the crowd). The event page says the purpose was to “show the globalists, including eugenicist Bill Gates, the World Health Organization and the CDC, that they can’t suspend freedom in America at a mere whim, and that they can’t force us to wear face masks like the people in Communist China.”
Requiring that people wear masks to help prevent other people from dying is, of course, about trying to make sure hospitals aren’t overwhelmed and have room for you or your uncle if you have a heart attack. This is a very new virus and experts are still figuring out what percentage of people are carrying and possibly spreading it while showing zero symptoms—and early data suggests as many as 75 percent of people who test positive were pre-symptomatic. That’s part of the reason for orders to stay home and to wear masks when you have to leave the house for essentials.
While it’s impossible to know what the unidentified woman holding the “my body, my choice” sign thinks about abortion, it’s deeply ironic that she’s holding it in Texas, where people have little choice: Abortions after the first 10 weeks of pregnancy are almost totally banned as a result of an executive order from Governor Greg Abbott. Texans’ right to choose an abortion has been heavily restricted during the pandemic, with some people driving hundreds of miles to get the procedure in another state.
In a dizzying round robin of misguided conservatism and conspiracy-theorism, Texas lawmakers first exploited the coronavirus crisis as a means to ban abortion, and now “health freedom” advocates like Saturday’s protestors are trying to exploit abortion rhetoric to defend their right to get their entire community sick.
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