“My body, my choice,” reads the sign. A cardboard rectangle, taller than it is wide, it looks handmade. At its base, the line “Trump 2020” stands in counterpoint, red and blue letters against a white background. You stop short, but maybe not. You’ve seen the rhetorical device before: Two ideas that seem to contradict each other are juxtaposed to imply agreement, inviting you the reader to supply the logical connection and thereby participate in the discovery of a further, third idea, the synthesis, which is now the product of your mental labor—light labor, granted, but yours—and therefore harder for you to let go of and wave aside. In this case, the challenge is to reconcile an abortion-rights motto (thesis) with an endorsement of Donald Trump (antithesis), a politician whom the leadership as well as the rank and file of the antiabortion movement, on the whole, embraces with verve. Pro-choice and pro-Trump: Riddle me that. The paradox might have any number of possible solutions. The one that’s correct for the purposes of the sign is laid out in the middle of it. There a standard-issue, powder-blue surgical face mask is sketched inside the international hieroglyph for “No,” a red circle with a slash running through it. You can find the photo online at Getty Images. In the caption, the young woman holding the sign is identified as a protester at the Texas state capitol in April 2020, shortly after city and county officials in Austin issued orders requiring that people wear face masks in public. An American flag waves from a stick that she holds in the same hand.
Wearing a baseball cap backwards, dark glasses, a thin nose ring, and a patterned neckerchief, she has a look, casual but well put together, that I’ll call “metropolitan,” for lack of a better word. In her posture, you see poise; in her facial expression, quiet intelligence. She could be a model for a certain positive stereotype of that other, more familiar kind of pro-choice activist, the one dedicated to preserving the legality and accessibility of abortion in the United States.
The photo is a masterpiece of ambiguity. We can’t be sure which of two possible ironies the protester represents. Is it that of someone who supports abortion rights but also Trump? Does she tolerate the contradiction because, in her zeal for personal freedom in general, she rejects Austin’s face-mask mandate and finds a champion in Trump, who promotes a hands-off, laissez-faire government response to the pandemic?
Or is the irony that of someone who leans right and appropriates the other side’s language to promote her (as she sees it) libertarian cause? From the sum of her message, pro-Trump and anti-face-mask, I would guess that she’s a redstate partisan after all. The wording on her slab of white cardboard and the whole design of it appear to be copied from products—posters, T-shirts, and face masks (which take on the added meaning of “I’m wearing this but under protest”)—that are sold online, and I assume that the market for them is a segment of the pro-Trump right.
As an argument against face-mask mandates, “My body, my choice” collapses, for the same reason that it collapses as an argument to justify abortion. The body of the person asserting freedom of choice is not the only body in question. I may prefer to be free from the inconvenience or encumbrance of covering my face and think that I have a natural right not to adopt the practice. I may decide that the freedom to expose my mouth and nostrils to direct contact with the air outweighs the risk that I would get the virus and fall ill, but of course the reason to wear a mask is to protect not only oneself. It’s to protect others as well, or others even foremost, by taking care not to become a vector, someone who spreads the virus. The older a person is, the more likely the virus is to kill him if he catches it. One could argue that the obligation of a younger person to avoid infection is less to himself than to his elders.
So is the coronavirus pandemic like assisted suicide, a pro-life issue that summons our concern for the sanctity of life primarily (though not exclusively) with respect to the elderly? The two issues bear some obvious resemblance. In discussions of both, nursing-home residents figure prominently. Through December 2020, nursing-home residents and employees accounted for approximately one third of the 340,000 deaths related to Covid-19 in the United States. The toll on nursing homes in Europe, too, has been disproportionate.
Some critics of public-health restrictions stress the mountain of cases and fatalities in nursing homes to argue that government responses should be focused on the elderly and that the rest of the population should, by and large, be left alone, for the sake of curtailing economic loss. Owners and employees of small businesses in the hospitality industry have been especially hard hit, though not only by lockdowns imposed by state and local officials. Many people assessed the risk for themselves and decided for prudence, spending less time elbow to elbow with strangers in bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues during the pandemic than before.
“We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” President Trump tweeted on March 22, 2020, in the early weeks of the pandemic. “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he said from the Rose Garden later that week. “I still like playing it down,” he admitted in an interview with Bob Woodward earlier that month, referring to the virus, “because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Efforts to reduce the spread of the virus would depress the economy and thereby harm Trump’s reelection campaign, and so he and his supporters felt an incentive to downplay the pandemic and to criticize those who took and recommended precautions. A rhetoric of freedom versus fear came to characterize the spontaneous movement against lockdowns and face masks. The notion circulated that to wear a mask was to concede that you belonged to the sheeple, while my face in all its brazen bareness signified that I was free, frank, fearless, my own man—the Gadsden flag, with its script reading “Don’t tread on me,” was a frequent flyer among the anti-lockdown protesters at state capitals that spring. Men don’t wear face masks but cowards do, a journalist suggested on Twitter.
Overnight, the public-health crisis was politicized. Trump and his supporters minimized its seriousness, said their detractors, who, in turn, were accused of exaggerating it. Even if you thought that the call to vigilance and caution was misguided, it was understandable. It was defensible to the extent that it could be disentangled—it often couldn’t—from partisanship, from an apparent wish that Covid’s domination of the news would harm Trump politically. Pundits observed that he could have played the pandemic to his political advantage: Had he used the presidential bully pulpit to declare a public-health equivalent of war, he could have made himself, in effect, a wartime president, rallying the nation behind him, to join in a common cause, as during World War II, although by 2020 the spirit of 1941 had receded into a past almost beyond living memory. We’re divided and cynical to a degree that would have horrified the Silent Generation in its prime.
“I would expect conservatives to be more worried about virus X coming in from abroad,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt told Ezra Klein in a piece at Vox (May 21, 2020). A correlation between anti-immigration views and fear of infectious diseases has been demonstrated by social-science researchers. “When Obama was president and America was threatened by Ebola, it was conservatives freaking out,” Haidt recalled, “demanding a more vigorous government response to protect us, while Obama kept steady on following scientific advice.” But “Trump laid out his view very early: This is nothing to worry about, it’s a plot to discredit me, and it will magically go away.”
Skeptics of widescale public-health restrictions seized on statistics showing that the crisis looked far less severe when cases and fatalities in nursing homes were subtracted from the national totals. Sometimes the fact was stated without commentary, leaving the reader or listener to infer that the value of what was left of the lives of those already near their life expectancy was minor when compared with the harm that efforts to control the pandemic would inflict on everyone else, on our livelihoods and quality of life. Imagine a nursing-home resident who has dementia, heart and respiratory conditions, and ten weeks to live. She dies sooner than that after contracting Covid. In the autopsy report, it’s listed as one of several comorbidities. Her case is then added to the hundreds of thousands of deaths that the Centers for Disease Control counts as having been caused, in whole or in part, by the coronavirus. Is the gravity of her death equal to that of the death of, say, a middle-aged man who commits suicide after losing his livelihood, and subsequently his marriage, to the economic downturn caused by people staying home to avoid contagion?
Economists have devised formulas for determining the monetary value of a person’s life, or of her remaining life. “Attaching a price to human life will strike some readers as uncomfortable, if not offensive,” Chris Conover writes in Forbes (March 27, 2020). “Indeed,
Governor Andrew Cuomo recently tweeted “you cannot put a value on a human life.” And he is right in important and fundamental ways. But when it comes to public policy, it quickly becomes impossible to think that way.
For example, if we said that it was worth spending a trillion dollars per person to prevent unnecessary deaths, we’d run out of money in a day.
“It is sometimes said that life is priceless,” writes Robert VerBruggen in National Review (April 20, 2020). “But of course this is not true,” because
every day, we behave in ways that could shorten or end our stays on this earth, whether that means stuffing our faces with Doritos or simply traveling across train tracks, through the air, or at high speed down a highway. We do these things because we value their benefits more than we fear the risk of death they entail. And every year, this country’s legislators and regulators decide to enact some life-saving rules but not others, because some of these rules are deemed worth the costs and some are not. Making trade-offs between lives and other things we value is simply a fact of, well, life.
Risk avoidance, in other words, usually imposes a cost, even if it’s only the ten seconds you need to spend to walk over to the stove and turn it off before leaving the house. The cost of risk avoidance may be monetary, or monetary in part. To reduce the risk that a resident will contract the coronavirus, the mayor orders bars and restaurants to close or to reduce their capacity to enable social distancing. Would-be patrons lose opportunities to enjoy the amenity of dining out. The cost to them is a reduction in their quality of life. The cost to owners and employees of the establishments is monetary but could, as a knock-on effect, also cut the lives of some of them short, as the quality of the nutrition and health care within their means diminishes. Some are liable to die “deaths of despair” if the economic hardship resulting from the lockdown has made them susceptible to mental illness or substance abuse and, in turn, to suicide or a loss of their motivation to take care of themselves.
Those to whom risk attaches and in whose interest the cost of the lockdown is imposed are the residents of the city and any visitors to it. They share the risk unequally. A thirty-year-old may be about as susceptible to infection as his grandparents are, but he’s far less likely to get sick from it and even less likely to die. He misses hanging out with friends at the local dive, and most of all he misses his income from the restaurant where he waited tables. For him, the city’s new risk-management arrangement is a bad deal—a cure worse than the problem, you might say—if we think of him as a rational actor whose self-interest is narrowly defined.
The ratio of benefit to cost increases for him, however, if he lives with his grandparents and cares about their health. The citywide lockdown reduces their risk of infection and alleviates his worry. He still suffers the loss of his job and weekends out on the town, but he understands the trade-off and accepts it as the fairest possible response to a bad situation. He could argue, but he doesn’t, that the lockdown was unnecessary even for his grandparents because he would have worn a face mask outside the home, lessening the chance that he would get infected and then infect them, and they decided not to go out anymore anyway except for trips to the doctor and the supermarket. The three of them, that is, grandparents and grandson, would have taken precautions to reduce their exposure to risk. Even so, despite their efforts, they might not have been able to reduce their risk to what it is now, under the lockdown, in the absence of which more people would spend more time in public, spreading more of the virus than would have been spread otherwise. As an Australian epidemiologist remarked early in the pandemic, America’s uneven patchwork of public-health measures is like having a no-urinating section in the community swimming pool.
Never has the pro-life movement in its approximately half century of existence met such a pointed challenge to its understanding of the sanctity of life. Republican elected officials, antiabortion with few exceptions, condoned or promoted the president’s loosely defined vision of a Covid policy based on the assumption that one could take personal risks in splendid isolation, as if the possibility hadn’t occurred to them that their decision to forgo wearing a face mask could have lethal consequences for someone in whose company they exhaled. To hear them miss the point as they touted rugged American individualism in the context of a raging pandemic was like reading a New York Times op-ed in which the author defends a woman’s right to abortion while never once using the words fetus or unborn child. “I took an oath to uphold the constitution of our state, South Dakota,” Governor Noem Kristi told Fox News. “I took an oath when I was in Congress obviously to uphold the Constitution of the United States. I believe in our freedom and liberties. What I’ve seen across the country is so many people give up their liberties for just a little bit of security and they don’t have to do that.”
Voters for whom a candidate’s antiabortion bona fides usually seals their support for him found themselves in an awkward position. They rehearsed rationalizations for the president’s approach to or, rather, attitude toward the pandemic, but for the most part they failed to address their predicament. In their singleminded commitment to the tactical imperative of reelecting a man they trusted to deliver antiabortion policies and judges, they were blinded to a strategic complication: They had been cornered into affirming an economic assumption underpinning a longstanding pragmatic argument for abortion. They emphasized the common sense that life, though precious, wasn’t priceless. In doing so, they adopted the perspective from which many people sensitive to the plight of women with unwanted pregnancies in difficult circumstances defend abortion rights. Does the pro-life community now better appreciate the resistance that its message meets from the wider world?
“We all like the notion of the intrinsic worth of human life,” Peter Singer wrote under the heading “Fine Phrases,” in his book Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Values (1995):
We accept such a noble idea without much critical scrutiny, as long as it does not restrict us from doing what we really think is important. Then one day we find it is making us do things that are manifestly pointless, or likely to lead to disaster. So we take a better look at the fine phrases we so readily accepted. And start to wonder why we ever believed them in the first place. Then we drop them.
We invoke the sanctity of life but make exceptions to it. We lay down the principle that to take the life of a human person is a grave injustice. Then we enumerate exceptions. Just war, self-defense, and capital punishment are the most commonly accepted. Most Americans would make an exception also for abortion, or abortion in some circumstances. They disagree among themselves about where to draw the line. A growing number would make an exception as well for euthanasia and assisted suicide, though, again, they disagree on how permissive or how restrictive the laws and regulations governing the practices should be. In theory, the argument for hastening death applies to all ages. In practice, its application to the infirm elderly is disproportionate.
The infirm elderly, especially those in nursing homes, resemble the unborn in some notable respects. The two populations are voiceless, or largely so. Passive recipients of our care or neglect or worse than neglect, they are largely unable to defend themselves or to act in their own self-interest. Abortion differs from elder abuse in that the abuser is motivated by malice whereas abortion providers and women who procure their services typically are not, but violence is wrought against the passive recipient in both cases all the same. Whereas the aborted child is the victim of a deliberate act, the nursing-home resident who dies from Covid is the victim at the end of a chain of decisions made by individuals who may have only neglected to give sufficient thought to age-related fragility, hers and that of her peers.
While we recognize the humanity of both populations, the unborn and the infirm elderly, we are tempted to regard it as marginal, hovering at the borders between life and what we are tempted to imagine as nonexistence. If we imagine the life of the average person walking around in the world to be a bonfire, that of the unborn child is a mere spark; of the infirm elderly, a smoldering ember. If the pro-life community honors its principles, the infirm elderly belong to its natural constituency. Under the pressure of abortion politics, alas, the pro-life community defended a president who discounted the severity of a public-health crisis for which the bull’s-eye has been the nursing-home population.
Those who argued from economic necessity to defend Trump’s idea of what the government response should be to the pandemic were not all unreasonable or necessarily acting in bad faith. No one has a clear map of the tangled web of tradeoffs involving quality of life for the many and, for the fewer, the likely amount of life remaining to the elderly whom a given policy might expose to extreme risk. Save your criticism rather for those who, hoisting their Gadsden flags, compartmentalized their opposition to abortion as they adopted for the occasion the hard-libertarian rationale of the abortion-rights movement. (All due respect to the many pro-life libertarians who object to distortions of their political philosophy.) We would be naïve not to suspect that our protester in Austin saw some cheeky humor in her flashing the slogan “My body, my choice” as a statement against mandatory face masks. What she chose for the part of her body that was her face was to leave it uncovered, defying local law at the time. Her mask was her ostensible irony, behind which a stubborn contradiction waits to be resolved.
Nicholas Frankovich is an editor at National Review.