Bodily autonomy is a strong consideration in favor of both abortion and optional vaccination. Because it is not the only consideration, however, many of us are in favor of abortion for anyone who wants one while also seeing some cases in which we favor mandatory vaccination. I've recently seen posts from friends supporting the right to abortion, such as shares of screenshots of this tweet:

If you don't accept that bodily autonomy is an essential unconditional liberty, it's a waste of time talking to you at all. No other liberties survive without that one, more fundamental than property rights: if you don't own yourself absolutely, you own nothing.


In some ways this is similar to the use of the slogan 'my body, my choice', but I don't think people generally interpret short phrases as a complete argument; a slogan often draws attention to a major consideration without claiming it's decisive. In this case, however, people are sharing statements that do claim to be a full argument, and make the case for abortion in a way that also makes the case against vaccination requirements.

Q: A right to abortion isn't anything like a right to refuse vaccination! Their impact is very different, and there are lots of other considerations: vaccination prevents something contagious, pregnancy and childbirth can be deeply difficult, unpleasant, and dangerous, etc.

A: I agree. Which is why we should make the case for these policies in a way that depends on those considerations, instead of resting the entire case on autonomy.

Q: I do think bodily autonomy is an essential unconditional liberty, and I'm opposed to both abortion bans and vaccination requirements.

A: That's a consistent position, but you're not my audience here.

Q: A vaccine mandate doesn't mean you'll have one forced on you, it just means you can't go certain places. That's very different from threatening jail time for abortions.

A: If the court had ruled that states could exclude people who had ever had an abortion from restaurants, gyms, universities, and jobs in healthcare, government, or schooling, we would see this as very nearly as bad as a blanket prohibition an abortion. But I would also go farther: a future pandemic could be much worse than covid, and I could see one in which we would need to choose between literally mandatory vaccination and the lives of immunocompromised people.

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Human utility function cannot be reduced to one simple thing, not even "bodily autonomy". I like the idea of bodily autonomy a lot, but ultimately, everything is a tradeoff.

If you don't accept that bodily autonomy is an essential unconditional liberty, it's a waste of time talking to you at all. No other liberties survive without that one, more fundamental than property rights: if you don't own yourself absolutely, you own nothing.

This is a political rallying cry rather than a factual description of reality. Empirically, vaccinated people do not give up all their property, which they would if they actually near-mode believed that after their bodily autonomy was violated by vaccination, they do not own themselves absolutely, therefore they literally own nothing.

More precisely, they would be willing to spend up to 99% of their property to avoid vaccination (e.g. by moving to an isolated place), because keeping 1% of your property is obviously better than owning nothing.

Also, using bodily autonomy as an argument for abortion is begging the question. The counter-argument is precisely that part of that body is actually someone else's. (And if you find the thought experiment with "violinist" convincing, what is your position on conjoined twins -- should they be allowed to kill each other?)

Bodily autonomy has never been and is not now "an essential unconditional liberty", and there are plenty of less controversial examples than abortion or COVID vaccination. Authorities can detain, search and sometimes kill you under a rather loose set of guidelines, with impunity. You can be force-fed and force-medicated if you are in a voluntary or involuntary psych hold. There are plenty of other cases where your body is not 100% yours to do as you please.

The real issues, when one steps back from "using arguments as soldiers", are basically two-fold:

  • that the pro-life crowd counts a potential human as a human, 
  • and that it is not up to a human to take a life of another, except in self-defense or through capital punishment.

 The difference from the vaccination stance is pretty clear, but the pro-choice crowd rarely if ever engages with those, otherwise I would hear them saying something like "Every abortion is a tragedy, a loss of a potential human life, one that we would work hard to avoid" and "We understand that for those who see a potential future baby as a real baby, whether due to their religious beliefs or for other reasons, that terminating a pregnancy is tantamount to killing a baby". Well, you hear that, but it's by no means a mainstream pro-choice position. 

Once there is some mutual understanding, it becomes possible to work on agreeing when abortion is a tragic but a least bad choice (e.g. no heartbeat, ectopic pregnancy). There would still be plenty of sticking points, like the case of rape, but at least there would be a set of circumstances where terminating a pregnancy would no longer be controversial. Right now, this set is empty, and the fault lies with both sides. Definitely "bodily autonomy" is a weak and poorly defensible position for one seeking any kind of common ground.

I have lots of thoughts on this, but would rather not turn this comment section into a debate on abortion politics.

It might be worth talking more about what we mean by bodily autonomy. Most of the current abortion debate is not about laws that prevent women from doing something with their bodies themselves but it's about whether or not doctors can help those women by inducing an abortion in them.

Criminalizing suicide is not the same thing as criminalizing euthanasia. 

From a bodily autonomy perspective, it's not clear to me why a government shouldn't be able to say "you are not allowed to sell this abortion pill" when the same government is allowed to say "you are not allowed to sell heroin" and "you are not allowed to sell your homebrew vaccine". I personally do oppose FDA/EMA ability to restrict what I can do with my body.

Legalizing prostitution also feels to me about allowing bodily autonomy. 

Involuntary psychiatric holds in their current form feel to me also like problematic cases of violating bodily autonomy.

In cases like abortion, euthanasia, and prostitution I do like the way German regulation goes where we try to make sensible rules that try to honor the involved tradeoffs. 

I get the impression that most people who at the moment speak about bodily autonomy don't very strongly believe in it and therefore don't see it as a problem if that principle gets violated in other contexts than their pet political issue.


Downvoted for politics - it's hard to explore rationality on these topics, and I don't think this audience is likely to have over-simplistic reasons for our beliefs.  Give it 5 years and it may be a good topic for here.

Also, you need to at least acknowledge the belief that a fetus can be a moral patient and a virus can not as a VERY SIGNIFICANT difference between the two cases.

I think it is worth trying to explore discussing this topic on LW, and seeing if the discourse can remain reasonable on this site.

Having politics posts on LW is fine, but they mostly shouldn't be frontpaged and instead remain personal blog posts.

This post is tagged Personal Blog and is not tagged Curated or Frontpage (more), so it's not clear to me what you'd like to be different?

I could swear it was frontpaged when I wrote that, but now I'm only 80% sure that it was[1]. Anyway, I figured maybe auto-crossposted posts by high-karma LW posters might automatically get posted as Frontpaged rather than as Personal Blog.

  1. ^

    I welcome evidence both for and against the hypothesis that I hallucinated that.

Pardon the confusion. It was frontpaged, I saw your comment, then moved it back to personal blog. The thought didn't occur to me that you would then be mildly gaslit about your comment!

And no, everything including crossposts get manually processed and frontpaged-or-not. Occasional simple errors make it through. Thx MondSemmel for the comment that pointed this one out.

you need to at least acknowledge the belief that a fetus can be a moral patient and a virus can not as a VERY SIGNIFICANT difference between the two cases

That there are very significant differences between the right to an abortion and the right not to be vaccinated is exactly why I'm writing this post: reducing arguments to just the importance of bodily autonomy misses that those differences matter a lot. See my first Q.

I agree that the way it is right now pattern -matches with politics:

  • Short
  • Starts with a high-conflict position
  • Doesn't (sufficiently) dissolve the question.

I think there should be more examples, not just Covid and abortion and more criteria. That should fix it.

Given the disagreement with my comment, I seem to be in the minority, and I'm sure I'm digging deeper with this reply.  I don't think it just pattern-matches with politics, I think it's primarily about politics.  Replacing the examples with less-current ones, not just adding some decoys, would be necessary to fix it, IMO.

Or maybe not. "bodily autonomy" doesn't seem like a coherent dimension to explore - it's a mix of different things, most of which are interactions with others and with society, and combining them into this one idea seems politically motivated at it's core.

An unconditional right to bodily autonomy also implies the right to prostitute yourself and sell your organs, not to mention try whatever drugs you want or purchase corrective eyewear.

This is fundamentally misframed. For example, there's no reason not to support--in some cases--mandatory abortion if you support mandatory vaccination. The main benefits of abortion aren't to the user, they're to the potential conscious entity who mercifully wasn't forced to endure a predictably sub-par life and to society. Abortion isn't really about personal (bodily) autonomy, that's just a useful political expedient. 

edit: is this being downvoted because people think it's anti-abortion? To put this comment in more context,  it's assumed that abortion has great utility for reducing S-risk (the mundane kind, if that's a reserved AI danger term) and is also associated with positive social trends. With this in mind, if you compare abortion to vaccination, it makes sense to mandate abortions in at least some cases. It shouldn't matter, but if it's still not clear I am very pro abortion.