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Opinion: Are anti-vaccine and pro-choice advocates making the same argument?

On both sides, people with seemingly opposite views use the same argument to justify their beliefs. How can this be?

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A protester wearing a black shirt and hat holds a sign that reads “my body my choice” with other marchers in the background.

A protester holds a sign during a march from the Capitol to Washington Park in support of abortion rights in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

“They don’t really want to save lives, they just want to control your body.”

Notably, this accusation has arisen over the past few years on both sides of the political spectrum, depending on whether we’re considering COVID-19 mitigation measures — like policies requiring masks or vaccination — or opposition to abortion. Both cases exemplify the troubling trend of misrepresenting others by replacing their stated motivations with an easily defeated caricature (sometimes called a “straw man”).

Though, of course, these two issues differ in many ways, conflicts over abortion and COVID-19 mandates arise in large part out of two sides each insisting on widely recognized goods. Namely, these are the principle of individual bodily autonomy (“my body, my choice”) and the social need to protect the vulnerable among us, especially from death (“mask up, save lives” / “abortion is violence”).

Now, constructing an argument that recognizes these two goods and attempts to navigate toward a resolution is undoubtedly hard work. It requires weighing goods, considering difficult cases, and ultimately making tough decisions. It would be much easier, truth be told, if there weren’t two goods pulling in different directions. Things would be much simpler if one of those goods were, in fact, a farce.

Such a simplification is exactly what we’ve seen and heard over the past few years.

Some opponents of vaccine and mask mandates have insisted that the mitigation measures are not what their advocates claim. Control, they posit, isn’t just a necessary means of implementing these measures — rather, the measures are a pretense for acquiring control. Theories have circulated that the “vaccine” is really a delivery mechanism for a microchip, while masks are actually an early step in a larger conditioning plan of social control hatched by the global elite performing a “great reset.”

Likewise, some abortion-rights advocates have insisted that anti-abortion talking points are a smokescreen. It’s not really about saving babies, one viral Twitter post claims. In fact, the “pro-life” goal is to control people with uteruses. And as they succeed, protesters donning red cloaks suggest, we draw ever closer toward a theocratic future of obedience to religious authorities that will rival dystopian novels.

Saving lives may sound good, they each warn, but don’t fall for it — they’re not telling you what this is really about.

In both cases, the tension between two goods is replaced by a no-brainer decision between bodily autonomy and nightmarish totalitarianism. And importantly, the alleged secret motivation — namely, authoritarian control — distorts the opposing group’s argument so wildly that the depiction becomes laughably unrecognizable to them; those same opponents fail to see themselves in the caricature at all. Even though that group has more cogent explanations of their motivations, they have already been preemptively dismissed as deceptive trickery, something to be kept safely outside of the echo chamber.

Better conversations can be had.

Hard questions can and should be raised by each group about the implications, effectiveness and consistency of their opponents’ positions — as well as of their own. Good conversation and argumentation don’t shy away from disagreements or even the conclusion that someone is egregiously wrong. However, justifiably reaching such a conclusion almost always involves engaging with the rationale offered by that person.

Successfully arguing that someone is wrong takes a lot more work than dismissing them as disingenuous from the outset.

Of course, there are times when suspicion is appropriate. Ours is not a perfect world where every person accurately represents their interests (conscious or otherwise) up front, and skepticism can be a useful tool.

However, as any carpenter, mechanic, or cook will tell you, any one tool has limited application and shouldn’t be used for everything. If suspicion becomes the predominate mode of interaction with others, we jeopardize meaningful social discourse and risk the proliferation of fear-mongering, echo chambers and conspiracy theories. It’s time that we put other argumentative tools to work more often. 

Brandon R. Peterson is an associate professor (lecturer) at the University of Utah in the Department of Philosophy.