Those of you familiar with the women’s health guide of the early 1970s will recognize my admittedly cheeky reference. I take no exception with Our Bodies, Ourselves’ s premise but it is a useful pivot point for asking a separate question, when are our bodies not our own?
We are free to treat our body as a temple or to defile it. We can tattoo it, exercise it, engage in consensual acts between two adults with it, overfeed it, exhaust it, scent it, pamper it, dose it with foreign chemicals (recreationally or medically), and so on. For the most part, anything we do with our bodies is our own business, but I bet it would not take you long to come up with times when the way we treat ourselves is not simply a matter of personal choice.
I’m not thinking here of how our choices affect our immediate family or friends. The pain caused by alcoholism for example is not on my agenda. But the cost to others of our choice, as a hit on their pocketbooks or their health, is a different matter.
Take the case of the common cold. If you have it, you might feel well enough to go to the office, but should you and risk spreading the misery to others? At the very least, you warn your colleagues, avoid shaking hands, and cough into the crook of your arm. This seems to be only common sense.
Now consider vaccinations, a touchier subject. A recent article in Harper’s makes a good case that diseases like tuberculosis and small pox were only beaten back when vaccination programs got to two groups of people — those who were at high risk of getting the disease and those who were at low risk.
Not surprisingly, those with high risk tended to be lower class and those with less tended to be well to do. The more affluent group would have liked to believe they were above it all but in fact, they were key to solving a problem that touched the entire society.
You might also look at the business of motorcycle helmets. Here, a matter of personal choice can gin up medical costs that everyone has to share. The hospital either charges an insurance company which passes the costs on to other customers, or it absorbs the costs itself but passes them on in the form of higher fees to other patients.
What’s interesting is that with both vaccinations and motorcycle helmets we get caught up in the Western limits of individual rights. Your rights end where they infringe on my rights. It’s sort of a negative view of the world where the primary right is the right to be left alone. When the way you treat your body affects the happiness my body wants to enjoy, then we have a problem.
Of course, with vaccinations and helmets, not everyone sees it that way.