On Thursday 12th August, BBC News reported that a nurse in Germany had been giving patients an injection of saline (a harmless mixture of water and salt) instead of the Covid vaccination. She defended herself by arguing that she only did it to six patients due to dropping a number of vials needed to give them the vaccine. However, she is under suspicion for doing the same to over 8000 patients. Hence, it is suspected that the motive was a political one: the nurse is accused of being an anti-vaxer. For some, the case may not appear too bad. Saline is a harmless solution. However, the immorality of the case cuts deeply into philosophical issues around bodily autonomy.
‘Bodily autonomy is an individuals’ ability to make decisions about actions that will impact their body from a complete foundation of knowledge.’
What is bodily autonomy? It is an individuals’ ability to make decisions about actions that will impact their body from a complete foundation of knowledge. It is an individual’s right to decide how their own body should be treated. For instance, when someone denies a surgery to remove a tumor from their body, the decision is respected as the decision due to the individuals’ bodily autonomy. If someone then proceeded to carry out the surgery, then that would defy their bodily autonomy and would be morally wrong.
Bodily autonomy has a significant baring on multiple questions within philosophy. It is most obvious within the Pro-Choice movement, which argues women should be allowed to choose whether they have an abortion. Part of this argument arises from bodily autonomy; women should be able to have control of their own bodies and decide what is the right thing for it. It also plays a part in the Philosophy of Sex around consent. Individuals must be able to decide what they do with their bodies and whether they have sex.
Some argue that violations of bodily autonomy are far stronger than any other moral crime that can be committed. The violation of bodily autonomy is a special kind of wrong that hits us differently. This is why things such as rape or grievous bodily harm tend to carry higher prison sentences. (However, this can be a debatable premise. Instances of mental or verbal bullying can carry more scars than any other kind of physical harm. )
‘The nurse decided to undermine this bodily autonomy.’
This is the crux of the immorality of the case above; the individuals who wanted to get the vaccine had reviewed the pros and cons around getting the vaccine. They had made an informed choice with the information they had been given about how their body should be treated. However, the nurse decided to undermine this bodily autonomy. She defied their decision and gave them saline instead. Thus, her action was deeply immoral.
Some individuals may argue that the breaking of bodily autonomy is overemphasized within this article. There are some instances where bodily autonomy should be undermined. Breaking it does not necessarily lead to immorality:
Imagine that the nurse is on her way to the vaccination room when she overhears a conversation among the doctors. They comment that the injection isn’t a vaccine at all, but poison that will kill a person over two years. The nurse then proceeds to the vaccination room where she gives the person saline instead of the vaccination.Philosopher Ad Absurdum
In the case above, bodily autonomy would not matter. The individuals may have made the decision to receive the vaccination and exercised their right to bodily autonomy. However, the nurse still did the right thing in denying them the vaccine. Thus, for some, the breaking of bodily autonomy in the original case would not have significant moral sway.
There is no doubt that there will be some individuals that would go as far as to argue that the nurse did indeed do the right thing and there is no difference between the original case and the adapted case. However, there are clearly significant moral differences that should be accounted for between the two examples.
Firstly, there is the question of knowledge. In the adapted case, there was something that the nurse new but those who were being vaccinated didn’t; that the injection was a poison rather than a vaccine. In this instance, it would be denied that the individual had actually exercised bodily autonomy. For bodily autonomy to be present, a decision must be made based on accurate information and the capacity for reasoning must be present. If there was something the individual didn’t know, then the individual would not have bodily autonomy. Thus, in the adapted case the nurse would be doing the right thing because there is no breaking of bodily autonomy. However, in the original instance, it is unclear that the nurse had any piece of knowledge that the individuals being vaccinated did not have. The individuals were well informed and thus were in a position to make a decision for their body. Thus, the nurse broke the bodily autonomy of the individuals she refused to vaccinate and her action was still morally wrong.
‘Surely there would be some situations where there is full bodily autonomy but that autonomy should be broken?’
Some may challenge this argument. Surely there would be situations where there is full bodily autonomy but that autonomy should be broken? There must be some situations where an individual makes a fully informed decision but we would still be morally obliged to stop them from making that decision.
The rejection of this argument can be illustrated through the example of smoking.
One of your friends is a smoker while you are not. Both of you know the risks that come with smoking; lung cancer, emphysema, strokes. However, your friend still makes the choice to smoke.Philosopher Ad Absurdum
Despite knowing this is the wrong decision to make, you wouldn’t do anything to stop your friend from smoking. The reason for this is because they would have exercised full bodily autonomy. They were in full possession of the facts and made the decision still to smoke. Thus, the consequences of them choosing to smoke has no bearing on the morality of the situation for you. You still have to respect their bodily autonomy.
Thus in the case of the nurse, it may be true that she thought that the individuals were making the wrong decision in getting vaccinated. However, it does not alter the fact that she should not have prevented them from getting the vaccine. If they were capable of making rational decisions and were in full possession of the facts, the nurse had no right to make a decision for them about their own bodies, even if it was a harmless saline solution.
If you are still unvaccinated, you can find your local vaccination center here.