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I mean it’s not… I mean, I don’t… we are fortunate in this country that although we have vaccine hesitancy it’s a lot lower than we are seeing in other places in Europe, but also I just think at a practical level taking a vaccine should be a positive choice… in terms of requiring mandatory vaccination for the general population I don’t think that’s something we would ever look at.

Since the introduction of mass COVID-19 vaccination programmes, the principle of bodily autonomy has been reduced to a kind of philosophical phantom. So much is this so that the cringing, multi-caveated way in which Sajid Javid, the UK Health Secretary, can manage to gasp that he is against compulsory vaccinations is today viewed as being politically bold. How exactly has this come to happen and, perhaps more importantly, where is it all leading us to?

When somebody enjoys bodily autonomy, the only thing that is “mandatory” or “compulsory” is that they give informed consent to a medical intervention. Bodily autonomy means that you are in control of the decisions that are made about your own body, largely on the grounds that you own it. It thus goes without saying that if a person had been pressured by society or harassed by the state into taking a certain medicine, then they would no longer possess bodily autonomy.

Note that you are not really participating here if you are opposing violations of bodily autonomy due to their impracticality. It has been particularly distressing to see the opposition to “vaccine passports” in Scotland often deriving from the fact that they just do not work (in that they have occasioned no significant uptake in vaccination rates) rather than because they are out-and-out immoral. I am always bewildered whenever people who would take supreme offence if their employer ever ordered them to cover up a tattoo, or shave off their designer stubble, become weirdly blank when they hear that vaccinations are being mandated as a condition of continued employment.

Remove bodily autonomy and you will quickly discover that you have dislodged the broader philosophical ideal, deriving from the Enlightenment, of the autonomous, rational individual. That this core ideal has lately gone missing in many people can be seen in how bodily autonomy tends to be now argued for on a “single issue” basis, without recourse to any broader underlying principle. The picture of bodily autonomy that stands throughout the media is, as a consequence, a thoroughly confused one.

To most people with healthy liberal instincts, it is morally obvious that abortion is a right and that to deny abortion rights to women is a violation of bodily autonomy. In this view, the state cannot assume control over a woman’s body and force it to give birth in order to fulfil some religious obligation that the woman, the owner of the body, does not share or believe in. Indeed, such a violation soon becomes steeply nightmarish, in arriving at an unnatural motherhood without any active agency, where the government has supplanted the mother as the ultimate parent.

Politically, however, there are few roads that lead straight from a defence of abortion rights, essentially as an anti-slavery campaign, to an opposition to compulsory vaccination that is underpinned by the same principle of bodily autonomy. The Christian right oppose both abortion rights and compulsory vaccination without any consciousness of a contradiction, whilst those on the left who champion the right to abortion tend to grow far more relaxed or unalert when it comes to a vaccine mandate. It is almost as though these are two separate issues and there are two completely separate moral tectonic plates rubbing together beneath them.

Some people will say that bodily autonomy is null and void once a body becomes pregnant. There are now two individuals inhabiting the same body and given that one of these individuals possesses overwhelming power over the other one, the state is required to fairly chair the negotiations between them. But I would discount this view on the grounds of its overimagination. Being a foetus entails a total dependence upon another person’s body. Being a mother involves a total commitment to their child. This is simply what motherhood is, in other words, and such an indivisible concept leaves no cranny for the state to plant itself in and take root.  

Other people might recognise yet more confusion in my own moral queasiness about “assisted dying.” If somebody possesses bodily autonomy then they can surely dictate when their body is medically shut down? I would reply that they are very welcome to commit suicide. I would also worry about how consent can be ever satisfactorily determined, given the vulnerability of the individual in these circumstances and the pressures under which they are placed.

Defenders of compulsory vaccination might propose that the ideal of bodily autonomy is just too good for this world and that it rapidly grows unrealistic during a pandemic. If somebody refuses to take a vaccine, then this is not merely a decision about their own body but about the bodies of every individual who they will potentially infect. Recent research has thrown doubt upon how good vaccinations actually are at preventing infection within households, but let us assume that they make a difference, which happens to be also the general scientific consensus.

The problem with using the notion of infection to override traditional ideas about bodily autonomy is that it can generate a paranoia about where we will all end up. If the state can mandate vaccination on the grounds that this prevents infection from COVID-19, then what logical barrier is there to taking the same approach with flu, or measles, or HIV, or meningitis? The person who waives their bodily autonomy before COVID-19 might be unknowingly bidding a farewell to their entire body. It is no longer just their body, belonging to them alone, but a hazardous community infection point that has to be accordingly monitored and regulated by the state.

Yet our rights do not just overlap due to the possibility of infection. In a system such as the NHS, we are also interconnected financially, in that my love of taking extravagant risks whilst cross-country skiing could end up consuming your tax payments when I break all of my arms and legs. If you accept that bodily autonomy can be violated to prevent infection, then why cannot it be violated to bring down the overall costs of our pooled healthcare, by engineering responsible lifestyles, curbing inadvisable personal choices, and reducing the risk of injury and illness indiscriminately? If the state can monitor whether or not you have been vaccinated, and assign how much citizenship you deserve based on your vaccine status, then why cannot it dispense these rights based on your calorie intake or on the number of daily steps that you have completed?

If the door has been left even a millimetre ajar, soon it will be wide open. It is a classic pattern of behaviour in the managerial state that it starts out by combatting an extreme threat and then moves steadily in to grab more and more powers for itself. And so an innocent desire to fight child pornography will inevitably morph into ever more illiberal attacks upon freedom of speech in general, as the state tests its powers and builds up its muscles. Crumbling the dam of bodily autonomy will likewise leave the state’s power flowing in one direction only. Beware!