Five reasons why ‘my body, my choice’ doesn’t work for vaccines

With several countries making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for health workers, teachers and other frontline staff, anti-vaccination protesters have co-opted the feminist slogan “my body, my choice” from reproductive rights and bodily autonomy movements. Here’s why that argument doesn’t work for vaccines.

Photo by Michael Marais on Unsplash
Photo by Michael Marais on Unsplash


1. It threatens the legitimacy of reproductive rights movements

These movements call for reproductive rights for people who may want to avoid pregnancy or who might want to terminate a pregnancy. These movements are linked to activism over bodily autonomy, calling for young people – especially girls – not to be forcibly married as children (who cannot provide consent), or coerced into sexual relationships. Not only are these rights enshrined in the International Declaration of Human Rights and have been hard-won in many countries, but in many parts of the world, these rights are still being fought for, sometimes at the cost of human lives.

There is an argument from a human rights perspective for the freedom from harm caused by others, an equivalent argument for why it is illegal to drink and drive.

2. Free-riding or relying on others to get vaccinated is unfair

Ensuring that as many people get vaccinated as possible – to try and reach herd immunity – is essential in reducing cases and deaths, stopping the spread of the virus, and providing protection to immunocompromised people who cannot get the vaccine and rely on others getting vaccinated to stop the spread of disease. In addition, there are millions of people in low- and middle-income countries who want to be vaccinated but don’t yet have access. People may not want to be vaccinated for fear of side effects or believe that because they are young and healthy they are not at risk, reassured that others around them are. But the concept of doing something for the collective good breaks down if people start to make decisions based only on their individual beliefs.

3. Not getting vaccinated wreaks collective havoc

‘My body, my choice’ is an activist rallying call referring to individual health choices, centring on the bodily autonomy of the person. These choices (with the exception of abortion that could affect the emotional well-being of the other potential parent) don’t affect anyone else. In the midst of a pandemic that has killed 4.5 million people so far, choosing not to be vaccinated against COVID-19 when you have safe and effective vaccines available clearly has major implications for the health of others, especially vulnerable people who may not be able to get the vaccine themselves. Thus, there is an argument from a human rights perspective for the freedom from harm caused by others, an equivalent argument for why it is illegal to drink and drive.

4. Personal choice of vaccination sentiments can spread to other public health measures

The idea of centring personal choice at the heart of a decision to get vaccinated is problematic because it can be used to extend out to other public health measures such as masks or treatments. Some countries have now controversially made masks a matter of public choice, even in unventilated indoor spaces, which is contrary to scientific guidance on the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. As with vaccines, using masks not only protects the individual from getting infected, it reduces the risk of that person transmitting the virus to others.

5. The choice is not necessarily informed

Scientists and regulatory bodies who assess whether or not a vaccine is safe require enormous amounts of expertise and need to review vast amounts of data to make that decision. Most people, even those who are scientifically literate, don’t have the capacity for that level of assessment, which is why we have regulatory bodies and many levels of checks and balances before a vaccine can be rolled out to the general public. This doesn’t only apply to vaccines of course, but to any medicine or medical intervention, and beyond medicine to the motor vehicle or food and drink industries. Thus, holding back on vaccination to monitor side effects in other people – a wait and see approach – would only work if people waited for years before getting vaccinated against COVID-19, and even then only if they gathered data from studies around the world. People do have the right to be informed of potential risks before they take a vaccine, but this information can be provided by their health worker. Also, now that more than two billion people have been vaccinated, we have data on even the rarest side effects, of which there are very few. Even with breakthrough infections and new variants, all the evidence so far points to the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. Getting vaccinated is still the best way to protect yourself and the people around you.