Bodily Autonomy and Vaccination
A friend of mine recently asked how I write. Like everyone else who just sits down in front of the keyboard and hacks away, I was kind of dumbfounded as to how to answer this one, but a lot of it is being in the right place at the right time, and ruminating about it while in the gym and showering.
So, this week, I had a few epiphanies that came together, starting with a grim, unspoken truth at my cancer support group that I gave voice to: informed consent with deadly diseases is not possible. If you work in the medical industry, go back and read that statement a few times, because, on a practical level, there’s precious little difference between, “Your money or your life,” and, “If you don’t start chemo in a week, I’m putting you in hospice” (yes, one of my cancer friends was told that, so, the next time “doctor shopping” comes up, maybe talk about “basic salesmanship and empathy”) — except that a mugging is far cheaper than cancer, and, possibly, less traumatic.
I also pointed out that I didn’t really get my 20’s — not the same way other people do; I was either suffering from the side effects of neurosurgery, or a new tumor sprouted and was curbing my mental abilities. So, I’ve spent the majority of my life following physician’s recommendations. All of which ties into a central theme at the heart of both society and the current anti-vaccination movement (if you’re vaccine hesitant, this is going to piss you off, I’ll let you know that right away); bodily autonomy.
The US is both founded upon this concept, and founded on the idea that it only applies to the local landed gentry. The basic idea is; no one gets to tell you what to do with your body, except for you (some exceptions and limitations may apply to women, BIPOC folx, and LGBT+ people) — so, not really “bodily autonomy” as much as, “If you’re white, able-bodied, and well off, you get to decide what’s best for you.” At age 17, just as I really should’ve been figuring that entire idea out, I went in for my first neurosurgery. And I’ve been in and out of brain tumor/cancer treatment ever since. If you’re a minor in a medical crisis, you are, for all intents and purposes, not even privy to the conversation about what’s going to happen to you. You might be consulted when someone’s feeling indulgent, but it’s mostly to get you to shut up and agree to the nine hour surgery that your surgical team and parents think is best for you. I don’t know if you’ve ever had that horrifying experience where other people talk about you as if you aren’t there, in the room, just a meter or two away, but it is a recurring theme in Disease Country.
This horrifying, terrible idea that, maybe, your body isn’t quite your own, and you have virtually no control over it, is one of the harder concepts for able-bodied people to grasp. Not that all chronic disease survivors are walking around with an inferiority complex or a victim complex (unlike our former near-dictator, Woss-face, the fat orange guy… you know), just that all of us know that our influence on our surroundings is waning, and, if someone in a lab coat or scrubs tells us to do something, we move on it like our life depends upon it. Because, far too frequently, it does.
Able-bodied people are almost mulishly resistant to the idea that they don’t always know what’s best for their own bodies. I actually got to witness some of this first-hand, with my grandmother. My grandmother and I were never terribly close (some other time, I’ll discuss why no one should feel compelled to reproduce, because it’s a very weird emotional situation to grow up with a grandmother who is disinterested in children, at most), so I’m a little more dispassionate and less misty-eyed than the rest of my family, but she recently broke her hip (for the second time) and has been permanently downgraded from “independent living” to “needs a healthcare worker to see her a few hours a day.” She’s 95, and, in the past, has been somewhat resistant to this concept (I’m putting it mildly; we’ve gone so out of our way to accommodate her quirks that we’re now metaphorically pulling up to an abandoned motel in the middle of a desert). As far as I can tell; the last time she had any plant-based food in any discernable quantities was during the Reagan Administration. That was also the last time she engaged in any sort of physical exertion. As far as I know, she lived on a healthy diet of gummy worms and coffee (I guess our own definitions of “living our best life” vary dramatically). So, she was primed for a life-changing accident, as it were. In the past, Grandma was, let’s say, extremely resistant to the thought of anyone in her living space. And, in one single shattered hip, that precious illusion of bodily autonomy was gone, because Grandma, like everyone else, would rather be alive than maintain a hyper-solitary existence. So, now she tolerates healthcare aides in her home, because she got a really good look at the alternatives available, at her age and level of health. In complete honesty, I don’t know how compliant she is about following physician recommendations, but I can only imagine that she’s become significantly more-compliant.
The anti-vaccine crowd is running in the opposite direction, and has decided to treat a fundamentally sociopathic action as a personal freedom, bodily-autonomy issue, like drugs or sex work (which, I feel compelled to point out, they have absolutely no trouble banning) — not to be done openly, certainly, and not to be endorsed, but it’s ultimately an issue of what you do in the privacy of your own home. If infectious diseases stayed behind closed doors, I doubt anyone would have a problem with the antivaccine stance, and, with many other diseases that we’ve achieved herd immunity, because the overwhelming majority of parents know it’s better to vaccinate your kids and take them out for ice cream afterward, than it is to explain to CPS why none of your children survived to adulthood. Sadly, COVID decided to come out after most of us were vaccinated, and the thought of MORE chemicals in our bodies is, apparently, anathema to us. Pardon us while we get a second Michelob. Again, if COVID limited itself to the great unwashed, unvaccinated masses in this Godforsaken country (and they are, currently, the most at-risk group for this disease), or at least four in five Americans thought enough of their neighbors to make that long trek to the local supermarket for a jab in the arm. Again, apparently that’s going too far.
So, we still have this unfortunate mass delusion that we all automatically know what’s best for our own bodies, and can’t impose our will upon others’ bodies, unless it’s women, disabled people, black or indigenous folx, LGBT+ people, or any other minority groups who were actively denied that. I’d say that we subject antivaxxers to the exact same rhetoric sick people face daily. “What do you think caused your beliefs?” “Have you considered Vitamin B17? It did wonders for my aunt.” “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.” “What’s your spouse going to do when…?” In short, they’ve already decided they aren’t ready to be at the grown-up table, I think enforcing some vaccine passports to get into a movie theater is the price we pay for safety. If it bothers you, just pretend that it’s a measure to keep us safe from terrorism (which it sort of is, when you think about it), and carry on as if they won’t remember when the mid-terms are held. Yes, I’m speaking disdainfully about a group of people who will, let’s be honest, never read this, and are willfully and knowingly putting me and all of my friends at risk. If that offends you, I am talking about you, personally. Want to prove me wrong? Get vaccinated.