How vaccine haters co-opted ‘my body, my choice’ slogan: Shots


Steve Bova (center) traveled from Maryland to Los Angeles with the ‘People’s Convoy’ to protest covid-19 restrictions. Despite using a phrase that originated in the abortion rights movement, he opposes abortion.

Rachel Bluth/Kaiser Health News


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How vaccine haters co-opted 'my body, my choice' slogan: Shots

Steve Bova (center) traveled from Maryland to Los Angeles with the ‘People’s Convoy’ to protest covid-19 restrictions. Despite using a phrase that originated in the abortion rights movement, he opposes abortion.

Rachel Bluth/Kaiser Health News

In the shadow of the art deco Los Angeles City Hall, musicians jostle on stage, children get their face painted and families picnic on lounge chairs. Amid the festivities, people waved flags, sported T-shirts and sold buttons, all emblazoned with a familiar slogan: “My body, my choice.”

This was not a rally for abortion rights. It was not a protest against the recent decision of the Supreme Court of the United States which emptied Roe vs. Wade. It was the “Defeat the Mandates Rally,” a jubilant gathering of anti-vaccine activists in April to protest the few remaining COVID-19 guidelines, such as mask mandates on public transit and vaccination requirements for health workers.

Similar scenes have unfolded across the country during the pandemic. Armed with the language of the abortion rights movement, anti-vaccine forces converged with right-wing causes to protest COVID precautions.

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And they succeed. Vaccine opponents have appropriated “My body, my choice,” a slogan that has been inextricably linked to reproductive rights for nearly half a century, to fight mask and vaccine mandates across the country – including in California, where lawmakers had sworn to adopt the toughest vaccine requirements in the United States

While the anti-vaccine contingent scored successes, the abortion rights movement took blow after blow, culminating in the June 24 Supreme Court ruling that ended the federal constitutional right to abortion. . The decision leaves it up to states to decide, and as many as 26 states are expected to ban or severely limit abortion in the coming months.

Now that anti-vaccination groups have claimed “My body, my choice,” abortion rights groups are moving away from it, marking a startling annexation of political messages.

“It’s a really savvy co-option of reproductive rights and the movement’s definition of the problem,” said Lisa Ikemoto, a law professor at the University of California-Davis Feminist Research Institute. “It reinforces the meaning of choice in the anti-vaccine space and subverts the meaning of that word in the reproductive rights space.”

Framing the decision to vaccinate as a singularly personal decision also obscures its public health consequences, Ikemoto said, because vaccines are used to protect not just one person but a community of people by stopping the spread of a disease to those who can’t protect themselves. .

Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist and pollster based in Washington, D.C., said “My Body, My Choice” no longer sounds good to Democrats because they associate it with anti-vaccination sentiment.

How vaccine haters co-opted 'my body, my choice' slogan: Shots

The phrase “My body, my choice” was ubiquitous at an April rally against vaccination mandates in Los Angeles. The slogan started out as an abortion rights slogan, but has become a favorite of vaccine skeptics.

Rachel Bluth/Kaiser Health News


hide caption

toggle caption

Rachel Bluth/Kaiser Health News

How vaccine haters co-opted 'my body, my choice' slogan: Shots

The phrase “My body, my choice” was ubiquitous at an April rally against vaccination mandates in Los Angeles. The slogan started out as an abortion rights slogan, but has become a favorite of vaccine skeptics.

Rachel Bluth/Kaiser Health News

“What’s really unique about this is that you don’t usually see the grassroots on one side taking the message from the grassroots on the other side — and succeeding,” she said. “That’s what makes this 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, to co-opt this message and distract from the work we do, and use it to spread misinformation, is frustrating and disappointing,” Hicks said.

She said the movement was already moving away from the sentence. Even where abortion is legal, she says, some women cannot “choose” to get one due to financial or other barriers. The movement now focuses more on access to health care, using slogans such as “Bans Off Our Bodies” and “Say Abortion,” Hicks said.

The growth of the anti-vaccination movement

Vaccination hasn’t always been so political, said Jennifer Reich, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, who has written a book about why parents refuse vaccines for their children. Opposition to vaccines grew in the 1980s among parents concerned about school vaccine requirements. Those parents said they didn’t have enough information about the potential harmful effects of vaccines, but it wasn’t partisan at the time, Reich said.

The issue exploded onto the political scene after a Disneyland-linked measles outbreak sickened at least 140 people in 2014 and 2015. When California lawmakers moved to ban parents from claiming personal belief exemptions for childhood vaccines required, opponents have organized themselves around the idea of ​​”medical choice”. and “medical freedom.” These opponents spanned the political spectrum, Reich said.

Then came COVID. The Trump administration politicized the pandemic from the start, starting with masks and stay-at-home orders. Republican leaders and white evangelicals implemented this strategy on the ground, Reich said, opposing vaccination mandates when COVID vaccines were still only theoretical – scaring people with rhetoric about losing personal choice and images of vaccine passports.

They have gained ground despite an obvious inconsistency, she said: Often the same people who oppose vaccine requirements — arguing it’s a matter of choice — are against the right to abortion.

“What’s really changed is that over the last two years it’s become very partisan,” Reich said.

Joshua Coleman leads V is for Vaccine, a group that opposes vaccination mandates. He said he deployed the phrase strategically based on the state he was working in.

“In a more pro-life state or city, they’re not going to connect with that message, they don’t believe in full bodily autonomy,” Coleman said.

But in places like California, he takes his “My body, my choice” rhetoric to where he thinks it will be effective, like the annual Women’s March, where he says he can sometimes get feminists to consider his point of view.

Co-opt slogan

The perception of the word “choice” has changed over time, said Alyssa Wulf, a cognitive linguist based in Oakland, Calif. The word now conjures up the image of an isolated decision that does not affect the wider community, she said. This can portray an abortion seeker as self-centered and a vaccine rejecter as an individual making a personal health choice, Wulf said.

Beyond linguistics, anti-vaccination activists are playing politics, intentionally hounding abortion rights groups by using their words against them, Wulf said. “I really think there’s a bit of ‘eff you’ in there,” Wulf said. “We’ll take your sentence.”

Tom Blodget, a retired Spanish instructor from Chico, Calif., sported a “My Body, My Choice” shirt – featuring an image of a cartoon syringe – at the Defeat the Mandates Rally in Los Angeles. It was “an ironic thing,” he said, meant to expose what he sees as the hypocrisy of Democrats who support both abortion and vaccination mandates. Blodget has 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 vaccinated, they say: it is simply murder.

“Women say they can have an abortion because it’s their body,” Blodget said. “If that’s a valid thing for a lot of people, why should I take an injection of a concoction?”

About a week later and nearly 400 miles north of Sacramento, state lawmakers heard testimony about abortion and COVID vaccine bills. Two protests, one against abortion and the other against vaccination mandates, converged. Truckers from ‘People’s Convoy’, a group that opposes COVID warrants that had toured the country with its ‘medical freedom’ message, testified against a bill that would prevent police from investigating false diapers or stillbirths as murders. Anti-abortion activists have lined up to oppose a bill that would update reporting requirements to the state’s vaccine registry.

“My body, my choice” was ubiquitous: Children patting police horses in front of the Capitol wore T-shirts with the slogan, and truckers watching a sword dance held signs above their heads.

At the time, two tough legislative proposals to make COVID vaccines mandatory for schoolchildren and most workers had already been dropped without a vote. There remained one controversial vaccination proposal: a bill allowing children 12 and older to be vaccinated against COVID without parental consent.

Lawmakers have since watered down the measure, raising the minimum age to 15, and it awaits crucial votes. They turned their attention to the latest political earthquake: abortion.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. It is an editorially independent operating program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation).


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