By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
“No one can tell me what to do with my body. It’s mine and I demand complete autonomy over it.” Two different groups have made this claim, but each focuses on a different issue. I’m betting most readers will guess one or the other, but can you see both?
Claim #1: It’s my body and no one can tell me what to put in it so I don’t have to get a COVID vaccine.
Claim #2: It’s my body and you can’t tell me that I have to carry a pregnancy to term if I decide not to.
Before you write to tell me the difference between claim 1 and claim 2 is that claim 2 affects not only the woman, but the fetus she is carrying, please note that I agree, although you can argue that the fetus is a parasite until it can exist on its own. But you’re wrong if you say that claim 1 only affects the person not getting the vaccine because that is a public health issue, meaning their choice affects more themselves. If someone spreads an illness because they refuse to be vaccinated, then they are not only endangering their own lives, but the lives of others. In the case of COVID, those with suppressed immune systems or who have other illnesses that reduce their resistance to the virus have died because people have refused to be vaccinated.
The issue of bodily integrity is far more complex than I can explain in a short column, but we do need a serious discussion about what it means in terms of both personal and public health. But if you say that the person in claim 1 has complete control over their body no matter who else is harmed, then the same should be offered to the person in claim 2.
“Each state should be able to make decisions for its citizens.” Interesting idea, but it can also lead to some conflicting claims.
Claim #1: Each state should be able to decide whether women can have an abortion.
Claim #2: Each state should be able to create laws about whether its citizens can buy and carry guns in public, including which types of guns they can buy.
Recently the Supreme Court has made some contradictory decisions affecting states’ rights. Their decision on Roe vs. Wade did not automatically make abortion illegal. What it does is leave the decision to individual states about whether the women in their states can have legal abortions. But that same court overturned one of New York state’s laws about gun control. You can argue that if a state can outlaw abortions, then New York state should be able to enforce laws restricting gun ownership. Before anyone starts claiming gun ownership is a constitutional right, please note this is not exactly true: it allows for a state to form a “well regulated militia,” which is like the National Guard or police forces, whose members carry guns. However, the New York law did not outlaw guns: the state simply put restrictions on them, much like many states are putting restrictions on abortions.
States’ rights is an interesting issue. Many states outlawed interracial marriages not that long ago; it wasn’t until 1967 that those laws were overturned by the Supreme Court. (Yes, that means the Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ marriage would have been illegal in those states.) When our country began, slavery was legal in many states. In the past, some states restricted who could hold public office based on religion, and that includes a few Christian denominations. According to a 2014 article in The Washington Post, at that time, eight states still had laws on their books saying that atheists couldn’t hold public office. I haven’t been able to track down whether there were states that didn’t allow Jews to vote, but you could make the case for states’ rights to allows that. So, we might want to be very careful of this slippery slope because the states’ rights argument makes it far too easy to restrict the rights of minorities, including Jews.
“As a parent, I should be the only person making important decisions about my child’s life.” Once again, this has been used to make conflicting claims.
Claim #1: As a parent, I should be able to say what books a school may assign my children and how subjects are taught in their school. I should also have the final word about whether they should be vaccinated.
Claim #2: As a parent, I should be the one who decides if my trans child is given medicine or has surgery so they can live an authentic life. The government has no right to interfere in those decisions.
In many states, parents are petitioning school boards to remove books not only from the classroom, but the school library. They also want to a say in how their studies should be presented, particularly when speaking about American history. This has led to book censorship and limits on discussions about the evils of slavery or civil rights issues. Other parents are claiming they have a right to decide if their children should receive vaccinations, saying that this is a private decision. There are officials in some states who have been extremely supportive of parental rights in these cases. However, some of these same officials are trying to make illegal the right of other parents to make decisions about their children. Which children are these? They are children who wish to transition from their birth sex to a different sex. These laws would also make it illegal for doctors to prescribe drugs or perform surgery on these children, even if the child and parent are in complete agreement about what needs to be done.
I understand the need to protect children, sometimes even from their own decisions. But how is it OK for parents to not allow children to be vaccinated (and I’m not just speaking about COVID – a general anti-all-vaccines movement has been growing) and have them risk permanent physical damage or death if they get ill, but helping trans children is wrong? If a parent has a right to make decisions in the former case, then they should have the right in the latter one.
I know that these issues are far more complex than I can discuss in a column of this size. But I want to open a conversation on both sides. Why? Because our country is so split it’s dangerous. Last year, I reviewed a young adult dystopian novel that talks about a future United States that is now split into two countries and the problems that resulted. That does not have to be our future. But first, we must stop demonizing those who disagree with us and try to find points of agreement. As I’ve tried to show, we have many of those, but unfortunately disagree about how to interpret and implement them. Maybe we can learn to agree to disagree. Maybe we can allow others permission to follow some of their beliefs if they allow us to do the same. Unfortunately, I’m more pessimistic than optimistic about this; I can only hope I’m wrong.