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COVID-19 mask mandates in Wisconsin and elsewhere spark 'my body, my choice' hypocrisy

This hypocrisy rests upon a conservative logic that has weaponized “equality” to establish a false equivalency — with women paying the price.
Demonstrators Protests At Texas State Capitol Against Governor's Stay At Home Order
An anti-mask protester holds up a sign that reads "My Body, My Choice" at the Texas State Capitol on April 18, 2020 in Austin.Sergio Flores / Getty Images file

It was only a matter of time before the effective pro-choice refrain “My body, my choice!” was hijacked in an attempt to reframe the language of the Great American Mask Debate.

On the surface — where this kind of political rhetoric works best — the appropriation would appear to be legitimate: The government should not tell people what to do with their bodies.

On the surface the appropriation would appear to be legitimate: The government should not tell people what to do with their bodies.

Because the messaging is simple and familiar, the appropriation has been well, viral. “Say NO to masks! My Body My Choice!” read the sign of one protester in upstate New York. “What about ‘my body, my choice’?” read another in a protest at the Indiana Statehouse. "We're not anti-mask. We're not for masks. We're for choice," one protester in Wisconsin said over the weekend.

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In July, approximately 100 people chanted the refrain while marching in protest of Seminole County’s mask mandate in Florida — a state where the coronavirus infection rate skyrocketed by 168 percent in June and the total number of cases continued to climb throughout July.

In Pennsylvania, Republican state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe argued the government cannot “force citizens to wear face masks. Wearing a mask in this committee meeting remains the choice of the individual. Your body, your choice.”

Metcalfe — who, no doubt, believes himself to be a very clever man playing a game of “Gotcha, liberals!” — prefaced this statement by asserting the hypocrisy of people who support mask mandates, because, he claimed in loaded religious speak, they are “from the ‘my body, my choice' crowd, who support abortion on demand. They support terminating the lives of the unborn as a choice, even though the life they are destroying is created by God with the unique and distinct genetic body that is different from the individual choosing life or death.”

But, are mask-mandate supporters the hypocrites?

The appropriation of “my body, my choice” maliciously equalizes two distinct issues, collapsing the fundamental difference between the two: The coronavirus pandemic is a public health crisis; abortion is a personal, medical issue.

To create this equation, Metcalfe uses the language of “abortion of demand” to imply that abortion spreads virally, like the coronavirus. That abortion is contagious. That everyone wants one. That women have abortion parties like people in Alabama allegedly had coronavirus parties. (The parties have since been mostly debunked.)

But, it is a fact — a real, medical fact — that a deeply considered decision to have a medical procedure is not a virus. Simply put, I cannot “catch” an abortion because a friend of mine has one. And, guess what? Neither can you.

Simply put, I cannot “catch” an abortion because a friend of mine has one. And, guess what? Neither can you.

Also a medical fact: Masks are proven to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. And new research offers hopeful data about how masks not only slow the spread, but also help protect the wearer.

Mask mandates are intended to free people from the significant risk of being exposed to the coronavirus. But this viewpoint — that masks are freeing us from exposure rather than imprisoning us — depends upon a willingness to believe the lives of other people matter, that we are not individual island nations but live in a society, in a symbiotic relationship with others, in which their health and well-being directly influence and correlate with our own.

Conservatives’ appropriation of social justice messaging is a long-standing practice, as documented by NARAL President Ilyse Houge in a commentary for Rewire. Even the framing of the abortion debate — between “pro-choice” and “pro-life” — has been set in terms dictated by conservatives that egregiously erase the value of the women’s lives. Because people who are pro-choice are, in fact, pro-life: “pro” the life of the living person making the choice to have an abortion.

It is, dare I say, hypocritical — or, at the very least, ironic — for anti-maskers to claim their personal freedom is jeopardized by being “forced” to wear a mask while at the same time advocating that women be forced to carry out an unwanted, and potentially life-threatening, pregnancy.

This hypocrisy rests upon a conservative logic that has weaponized “equality” to establish a false equivalency. The National Right to Life’s mission statement declares such by anchoring its argument in one of the nation’s foundational documents, the Declaration of Independence: “Our Founding Fathers emphasized the preeminence of the right to ‘Life’ by citing it first among the unalienable rights this nation was established to secure.”

Through a religious mindset, all life — born, unborn, dead — is equal. The advocates of this cause smartly point to the Biblically inflected language of the declaration as proof that this state-sanctioned “unalienable right” to life extends to fetuses, using the oxymoron “unborn human beings.”

However, another foundational document they so effortlessly overlook secured a separation between church and state; that the law is predicated upon constitutional rights rather than religious doctrine — and that a fetus is not a legal human being.

A simple feminist response to this would be to note how quickly conservatives espouse equality when it ensures that women are denied the right to control their bodies.

But another response would attack the logic — and fallacy — of equality head on. The reality is that all human lives are not treated equally in society or under the law — because, if they were, Black and brown and Indigenous communities would not be suffering disproportionately from the pandemic of the coronavirus or endemic police violence.

So, let us reframe the language of this debate: Being anti-mask isn’t some kind of righteous clarion call to protect the individual rights of Americans. Being anti-mask, rather, represents an acceptance of social inequality. It represents a stunning indifference to the lives of other Americans and a willful ignorance about public health — that my well-being is fundamentally related to that of my neighbor. It represents the unpatriotic rejection of the government and its job to ensure the health, safety and well-being of all its citizens — shockingly, a view espoused by some of the people elected to do this very job.

What if we began with these truths?

What kind of hypocrisies would then be revealed?