Contradictory Cries for Freedom: Vaccinations and Abortions

Photograph Source: Becker1999 – CC BY 2.0

The word “freedom” is being bantered about these days in different contexts. On the one hand, those opposed to mandatory vaccinations claim they have the freedom to be vaccinated or not. It’s their choice what to do with their bodies. The government cannot force them to be vaccinated; they are free to choose. On the other hand, many of the same people say that pregnant women cannot choose to have abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Their argument is that women’s choices should be limited by the government. In this case, the government can intervene; the women are not free to choose what to do with their bodies in the interest of the unborn.

How can it be that someone can be free to choose to be vaccinated or not but cannot choose to have an abortion? The freedom to not be vaccinated limits the government’s right to intervene; the Texas limitation on the freedom to abort shows the power of the government to limit the mother’s freedom.

How can the same people hold differing views on freedom?

The freedom to not be vaccinated or limitations on abortions are close to Isaiah Berlin’s concept of negative and positive freedoms. In his inaugural lecture as the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford University in 1958, entitled “Two Concepts of Liberty,” the political philosopher made an important distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to.” “Freedom from” is freedom from constraints, such as the freedom from government restraints to be vaccinated or not. “Freedom to” is the ability to not be restrained, to be able to choose what one wants to do such as having an abortion.

Superficially then, those who argue for both freedoms will say that the right to decide about vaccination is a “freedom from” government intervention while the “freedom to” have an abortion is limited by the government because the right of the unborn must be protected. According to the recent Texas law, the mother is not free to choose what to do with her body. The government decides for her.

Can people use freedom the same way?

In his inaugural lecture, which was later published, Berlin defined negative freedom as follows: “I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others.” He concludes the definition by noting that “By being free in this sense I mean not being interfered by others. The wider the area of non-interference the wider my freedom.”

This is clearly the argument for those who are opposed to mandatory vaccination. They believe that the government cannot interfere in their choice of being vaccinated or not. Each individual, they claim, is responsible for his/her body. No government can obstruct that choice.

What about mandatory vaccinations for polio or measles for school children? What about mandatory vaccinations for malaria if one wants to visit certain countries? Why in the case of vaccinations against COVID-19 are people free to choose but not free to choose about polio or measles? Those opposed to COVID-19 vaccinations have chosen a negative freedom argument that they accept in other circumstances. Economists call this cherry picking, looking for the easiest argument or lowest hanging fruit even though it is in contradiction to the general principle.

He argues that “It is true that to offer political rights, or safeguards against intervention by the state, to men who are half-naked, illiterate, underfed, and diseased is to mock their condition; they need medical help or education before they can understand, or make use of an increase in their freedom. What is freedom to those who cannot make use of it?”

For Berlin, “freedom from” is “political claptrap” because the government provides basic services which allow other freedoms to exist. To emphasize “freedom from” government intervention – in this case the question of vaccinations – denies the enormous role governments play in protecting our general health. Why deny vaccinations against COVID-19 when accepting government regulations for vaccinations for polio and measles as well as obligatory medical insurance? That is cherry picking at its worse, and “political claptrap.” As he says: “Without adequate conditions for the use of freedom, what is the value of freedom?”

As for positive freedom, Berlin defines it as: “The ‘positive’ sense of the word ‘liberty’ derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind.”

While the two concepts of freedom (Berlin uses freedom and liberty interchangeably) may seem very close to each other, he goes to considerable lengths to show how they contradict each other. His point is that people are complex. Only those who are self-controlled through social constraints should have the “freedom to.” That is why we have compulsory education, for example. The government tries to help people realize their freedom to do things outside government control but only after a certain “self-mastery” has been reached. There is no inalienable right to “freedom to.” The state has the responsibility to create the conditions to allow people to profit from “freedom to.”

To return to COVID-19 vaccinations and abortions; it is obvious that those who oppose vaccinations think that they know better than the government and medical experts. They believe that they are more rational about scientific evidence. But those who call for limiting abortions after six weeks believe that the government knows better when life starts and who should be protected. The “freedom from” works for them when COVID-19 is in question; the “freedom to” works for them when it concerns the right to life of the unborn child. In the first case the government should not interfere; in the second it should.

Is it important to point out these contradictions in order to show inconsistencies in arguments? Maybe. Will it convince people of contradictions in their positions? Probably not. But it might show that when people cry for freedom and liberty we (and they) should reflect on what they mean, and realize that cries for freedom can have many, often contradictory meanings.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.