In the wake of what epidemiologists are calling COVID-19’s “fifth wave,” Gov. Jay Inslee has issued a vaccine mandate for most state employees and health care workers followed by a second mandate for employees working in K-12, most childcare and early learning, and higher education.
Over 72% of Washingtonians have had at least one dose of the vaccine and 56% of adults surveyed by a Morning Consult poll said employers should probably or definitely require COVID-19 vaccinations for their employees and customers. However, after the announcements of the mandates, Republican lawmakers have spoken out against government overreach and protests have shot up across the state, demanding medical freedom with messaging that appears to be borrowed from across the aisle.
“It’s not that we’re anti-vaccine — we’re just pro-choice,” said Tayler Dennison, a resident of Ravensdale in King County who has organized three anti-mandate protests in Washington and identifies politically “right of center.”
Dennison is not vaccinated. She is choosing to wait until more research has been done on the vaccines. Dennison said that she is particularly concerned with how the vaccine may affect reproductive health and fertility.
With the mandates making her, a recent nursing school graduate, a difficult sell on the job market, Dennison said she has plenty of time to protest in Olympia, Wenatchee and Puyallup. Dennison usually carries a sign that reads, “I Stand for Medical Freedom / #StopTheMandate.” One of the common signs she sees in the anti-mandate crowd is “My Body, My Choice.”
“It used to be the left that was saying ‘My Body, My Choice,’ when they wanted the right to choose on whether to get abortions or not,” Dennison said. “Now that we are not given that choice with the vaccine, that’s kind of how we feel.”
Adrienne Weller, a member of Radical Women Seattle, has held her fair share of signs that read “My Body, My Choice,” but under a different cause. Historically, the phrase “My Body, My Choice” has been used in feminist circles when advocating for reproductive rights and abortion access. And Weller’s not happy with how the slogan is currently resurfacing among groups who typically advocate against the original meaning of the phrase.
“This is what’s typical of right-wing, anti-woman, misogynistic politics,” Weller said. “They always borrow — or steal — from the left, use our slogans in order to pump up their disgusting political agenda.”
Weller says she does not anticipate folks who are pro-choice with vaccines to come protest shoulder-to-shoulder with folks who are pro-choice with reproductive rights — “excuse me while I laugh.”
Dennison is consistently pro-choice. Despite religious convictions, she believes abortion is an individual’s choice. However, Republicans at large do not seem to apply the pro-choice philosophy to the cause it is most commonly associated with.
Abortion is a deeply-held point of contention separating the two major parties. Democrats are typically pro-choice — so much so that when Inslee bragged about his reproductive rights record during the first 2020 Democratic presidential debate, he impressed no one, especially not Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who reminded him that the women on stage also advocated for choice. Republicans are typically pro-life; at the end of July, 228 Republican members of Congress called on the Conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court to uphold Mississippi’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even if it meant overturning landmark case Roe v. Wade.
Democrats and Republicans, and not just the far left and right, are also at odds when it comes to COVID-19 regulations. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 86% of Democrats have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot compared to 45% of Republicans. Washington’s Democrat governor has implemented some of the strictest guidelines in the country for COVID-19 to the ire of state Republicans.
Republican lawmakers, who often embolden the “My Body, My Choice” rhetoric of anti-mandate protests, have attempted to limit choice in the movement from which the protesters have borrowed the language.
Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen), who once wore a Star of David to draw an analogy to vaccine passports, spoke at a protest against the mandates in Olympia, Aug. 13. NARAL Pro-Choice Washington gave Walsh a “D” grade when it came to promoting pro-choice policies.
The two most powerful Republican lawmakers in the state, Sen John Braun (R-Centralia) and Rep. J.T. Wilcox (R-Yelm), issued a joint anti-mandate statement that emphasized individual choice.
“Vaccinations can save lives and we have strongly encouraged people to get them,” the statement read. “We have been vaccinated ourselves. But getting the vaccine is a personal health-care choice and should not be mandated by any level of government. Threatening to terminate someone’s job if they don’t comply with this requirement is heavy-handed and wrong.”
Despite Braun and Wilcox’s pro-choice stance on vaccines, the most recent win for reproductive rights in Washington state, the Reproductive Parity Act, which requires health insurance plans to cover all FDA-approved contraceptive methods free of cost-sharing requirements and over-the-counter contraceptives without a prescription, was snubbed by both lawmakers in 2018.
At the time, state Republicans saw a characteristic government overreach angle in the Reproductive Parity Act, arguing it should be called the Abortion Insurance Mandate Law. Among the amendments Republicans wanted for the bill certain to pass a Democrat-led legislature were exempting employers that object based on religion on conscience.
In 2019, four lawmakers cosponsored a bill to abolish abortion in the state. One is no longer in office, but the other three lawmakers, Rep. Brad Klippert (R-Kennewick), Rep. Vicki Kraft (R-Vancouver) and Rep. Jesse Young (R-Gig Harbor), have all spoken out against the vaccine mandates.
Klippert told Real Change he was against the mandate — and unvaccinated — a few weeks ago. Young showed support on Facebook for Gig Harbor first responders who opposed the mandates. Kraft was one of 12 lawmakers to sign an open letter to Washingtonians about her commitment to upholding the constitution in the face of mandates.
“Forcing employees to be vaccinated to keep their job is completely opposite of the freedoms and rights guaranteed to the people in our U.S. Constitution and WA Constitution,” Kraft told Real Change in an email. “Our state in particular is way out of line in how it is forcing Covid-19 mandates and vaccines down people’s throats, or in their arms, in this case - it’s very anti-American and it needs to stop now.”
Former director of Aradia Women’s Health Center and board president of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington Marcy Bloom, who helped legalize abortion on the state level in 1991, cited the pushback on COVID-19 guidelines and vaccine mandates as evidence that “right-wingers” have “never been pro-life” in an email to Real Change.
The U.S. had a rate of 4,000 deaths a day in January before widespread vaccination. According to a study conducted by the Commonwealth Fund, vaccination has saved approximately 279,000 lives and prevented up to 1.25 million hospitalizations through the first six months of the year.
Hannah Krieg studied journalism at the University of Washington. She is especially interested in covering politics, social issues and anything that gives her an excuse to speak with activists.
Read more of the Sept. 1-7, 2021 issue.