Coney Barrett´s juxtaposition: covid = abortion?

By Ezio Di Nucci.

While the left was busy making excuses for vaccine mandates, conservatives saw an opportunity: if autonomy could be sacrificed on the altar of public health, then the modest gains made against patriarchal oppression during the 20th century might no longer be beyond reach, early in the 21st.

In December 2021, during oral arguments on the case that ended up with SCOTUS overturning Roe (Dobbs v. Jackson Women´s Health), Justice Amy Coney Barrett tried out that line of argument:

“There is without question an infringement on bodily autonomy, for which we have another context like vaccines”.

The claim is a simple one: if the main argument for abortion rights is women´s bodily autonomy, then vaccine mandates have shown how to trump that argument; and if after the pandemic bodily autonomy is no longer untouchable, then we can take down abortion (and more), which they did.

The question is not just the historical proximity – or even possible causal link – between the COVID-19 pandemic and SCOTUS´s decision on abortion, but also whether there is any philosophical merit to Coney Barrett´s juxtaposition, which turns the table on progressives: how could they contemplate – and in many cases endorse – vaccine mandates but not accept other limits to bodily autonomy?

Surely, the mere normative possibility of vaccine mandates shows – so Coney Barrett´s juxtaposition – that bodily autonomy never was (or no longer is) an absolute within liberal democracy, which in turn suggests that liberals will have to re-contest issues like abortion.

The following logical possibilities suggest themselves in relation to Coney Barrett´s juxtaposition:

  1. Reject vaccine mandates, bodily autonomy is indeed absolute (non-consequentialism);
  2. Reject bodily autonomy as a premise for abortion rights. Two routes here:
    • going back to the abortion debate pre-Thomson, rejecting personhood; or
    • a radical feminist view where abortion rights neither depend on bodily autonomy nor on rejecting personhood;
  3. Distinguish between the way in which vaccines and pregnancy challenge bodily autonomy;
  4. Re-negotiate abortion.

Historically, SCOTUS picked (4), arguably the least plausible option. And it is relatively easy to argue that (4) doesn’t follow from Coney Barrett’s juxtaposition: all we need to do is argue that 1-3 cannot be ruled out, which is what we turn to now.

Option 2 calls for the following distinction: bodily autonomy might be sufficient for abortion rights, but is it also necessary? The sufficiency claim is what Judith Jarvis Thomson famously argued for in the ‘70s, that the question of personhood was irrelevant to abortion rights… but was it a mistake to grant the metaphysics to pro-lifers?

On the necessity claim, radical feminists would argue that, given overwhelming patriarchal oppression, there are not only social and political but also ethical reasons why we don’t even need bodily autonomy to justify abortion rights. And while those reasons might for some prove too much (as they are likely generalizable to voluntary reproduction as well), climate change should have taught us to be radical. Still, in order to reject (2) altogether, it’s not enough to argue that bodily autonomy is only sufficient but not also necessary for abortion rights.

Option 3 is ironic, because we can sure try to create normative room between pregnancy’s autonomy infringements and vaccines’ autonomy infringements, but those differences are unlikely to result in (unwelcomed) vaccines being a more fundamental infringement than (unwelcomed) foetuses. Still, a supporter of Coney Barrett’s juxtaposition might insist that it’s quality over quantity when it comes to bodily autonomy and that going consequentialist about it is just begging the question against conservatives.

This leaves us with option 1, and the historical if not philosophical reckoning with whether the pandemic was actually worth even moderate compromises on bodily autonomy. That’s where we might have to recognise that the philosophy of history (or was it Marxism?) has gone out of fashion before it had finished doing its work: reminding us that we should not lose sight of material and historical conditions, especially when philosophical questions are less than obvious.

Here the hypothesis would be that Coney Barrett’s juxtaposition does not need to be philosophically plausible in order to successfully do its work. Given certain economic conditions (which in turn result in a conservative Court), it is enough that Coney Barrett’s juxtaposition is not obviously wrong for it to gain political traction and ultimately succeed in its aim of undermining women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

I believe the Greeks had a name for this kind of philosophical borderland: sophistry. Three quick objections and then we are done:

  1. many progressives might here argue that even if one buys the sophistry charge against conservatives, the left is still to blame for having materially enabled sophistry to succeed, in having endorsed an economic system that resulted in SCOTUS’s conservative supermajority;
  2. that was a purely political objection, but on a more philosophical level one might also object that a further mistake, on the left, has been to forget that big normative questions can never be put away for good and will always be up for renegotiation;
  3. finally, it might also be objected that the mistake was upstream: the abortion debate should have never moved on from denying personhood, and that’s the weakness that has enabled the current pro-life comeback (thanks to Anne Lykkeskov for this suggestion).

Did the Greeks also have a name for sophistry enablers? Because that’s us.


Author: Ezio Di Nucci

Affiliation: University of Copenhagen

Competing interests: none

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