Marina Gomberg: Why mask mandates and abortion bans aren’t the same thing

Some rules are for the public health, and others are more personal, Gomberg argues.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marina Gomberg.

I enjoy being engaged and challenged by readers. I mean it. It gives me the chance to re-evaluate my position and seek new information, which is always a win. So, thank you for your emails and tweets after my last column which critiques the possibility of the Supreme Court of the United States overturning Roe v. Wade, asking how I could be a proponent of locally ordered mask mandates, but against a state-by-state approach to abortion freedom.

These questions, as they were posed, seemed a bit more on the rhetorical side and maybe aimed at proving I’m a hypocrite (you might be right), but I’ll answer them in case they’re genuine.

The truth is: There are some decisions about our bodies I trust our local leaders to make, and some I don’t.

I’m complex, I guess.

For example, while I have disagreed with some of their choices in Utah, I think having local governments decide things like blood-alcohol limits for people operating motor vehicles is really important, as were the mask mandates during the heights of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While both are health-related, masking and banning driving under the influence are matters of public health. Reproductive health, on the other hand, is a (very) personal matter.

And that distinction is critical.

“Public health is defined as the science of protecting the safety and health of entire communities,” my pal Nicholas Rupp, who is the communications director for the Salt Lake County Health Department, clarified. “But public health is very notably NOT individual medical care. We engage in immunization work, which is an individual medical procedure, only because the purpose is to prevent transmission of disease in the community.”

Similarly, we don’t limit how bamboozled a person can get from drinking (bottom’s up, bro), but we do criminalize drunkenness when it’s a threat to the broader community (so you can’t drive).

Now, I understand that some argue abortion is a threat to the “unborn” community. That sentiment would be compelling if those same people cared as much for the born. But we don’t mandate under any other circumstances that a person must donate their body, blood or organs to save another life. Your kidney, your choice.

Writer Leila Cohen gets to the real heart of the matter in a Twitter thread, “If it was about babies, we’d have excellent and free universal maternal care. You wouldn’t be charged a cent to give birth, no matter how complicated your delivery was. If it was about babies, we’d have months and months of parental leave, for everyone.

“If it was about babies, we’d have free lactation consultants, free diapers, free formula. If it was about babies, we’d have free and excellent childcare from newborns on. If it was about babies, we’d have universal preschool and pre-k and guaranteed after school placements.

“If it was about babies, IVF and adoption wouldn’t just be for folks with thousands and thousands of dollars to spend on expanding their families.

“It’s not about babies. It’s about punishing women (and all people with uteruses) and controlling our bodies.”

The bottom line is that if we don’t prioritize quality of life, we are not prioritizing life at all. But we can strike that harmony when we allow public health and individual medical care to work synchronously.

Lastly, and I begrudgingly say this because it almost isn’t worthy of mention, but: Let’s be clear that for the overwhelming majority of us, the inconvenience of temporarily wearing a face mask compared to the sometimes brutal — and, too often in America, deadly — experience of pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood is like comparing a paper cut to open-heart surgery. We’re taking a hard pass on that malarkey.

I think the nuanced truth is that most of us really value life AND autonomy. We just have to figure out how those two can find balance in a world where our scales are all tipped by different factors.

That means the question isn’t when or if abortion is appropriate, but who is best capable of making those determinations.

And the answer is: Always the people whose wombs are in question.

Marina Gomberg is a professional communicator, a practicing optimist and a lover of love. She lives in Salt Lake City with her wife, Elenor Gomberg, and their son, Harvey, and their dog, Mr. Noodle. You can reach Marina at mgomberg@sltrib.com.