STEVEN ROBERTS: Ensuring the common good | Notice
The Houston Methodist Hospital has set a deadline this week for its 26,000 employees: get vaccinated against the coronavirus or lose your job. Almost everyone has complied except for a small group of dissidents, who are now suing the hospital.
Jennifer Bridges, the nurse who leads the anti-vaccination forces, told Texas Monthly magazine: “It’s supposed to be America; you are supposed to have civil rights and constitutional rights, your freedom of choice. … No one should be forced to put anything in their body if they don’t agree with it.
Reluctance to vaccines is a complex problem with many causes, from sincere religious objections to false conspiracy theories. But these reasons are often rooted in the mistaken assumption expressed by Bridges: that the “civil and constitutional rights” of an individual always trump the rights of society to impose personal behavior, to invest in the common good. before “freedom of choice”.
Even the most basic of rights have limits, especially when an individual’s action impinges on the well-being of others. You can own a firearm, but only if you get a license and don’t use it carelessly. You can speak freely, but not to incite violence that endangers public safety. You can drive a car, but you must pass an exam first and then obey the rules regarding speeding, drunkenness, and other reckless behavior. And you should be forced to get vaccinated when you’re susceptible to a deadly disease that can infect others.
The Supreme Court made precisely this point in 1905, when it upheld a Massachusetts law that required vaccination to contain a smallpox epidemic. Speaking for a 7-2 majority, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote an opinion in Jacobson v. Massachusetts which remains an essential principle of American law more than 100 years later:
“In any well-ordered society charged with the duty of preserving the security of its members, the rights of the individual with regard to his freedom can sometimes, under the pressure of great dangers, be subject to such restriction, to be enforced. by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may require.
The Harlan test is clearly satisfied today. It is a time of great danger, the safety of the general public is at stake, and vaccination mandates like the one imposed by the Houston Methodist are certainly reasonable. Additionally, the Biden administration is struggling to meet its goal of having 70% of American adults vaccinated by July 4.
The KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor reports that while 62% of adults have received an injection, about a third remain reluctant. Injection rates have plummeted, supplies are not being used and NPR reports: “Now some researchers are increasingly concerned that this reluctance is enough to prevent the nation from achieving what is called collective immunity, the point at which the coronavirus can no longer easily spread through the population and transmission runs out.
“Reluctance to vaccinate is a big problem for all of us,” said Ali Mokdad, who tracks coronavirus trends at the University of Washington.
As I said, this is a complex issue and the suspicions against the government are deep. A public health official told me that some staunch believers insist, “God will protect me. Others, including many soldiers, are just stubborn and don’t want to be told what to do.
All of these motives, however, are compounded by Trumpism and the blind rejection of science – in fact, rejection of any fact that contradicts the prejudices of the believer. It is no coincidence that in a recent Monmouth University poll, 36% of Republicans expressed doubts about vaccines compared to just 6% of Democrats.
Factor in another damaging dimension of Trumpism: the rapid spread of disinformation which can be as insidious and intractable as any virus. Bridges, the Houston nurse, admitted to WebMD: “I’ll be honest… I kind of fell into this little rabbit hole.”
Texas Monthly reports: “Bridges said his mistrust stemmed from reading articles shared between his network of colleagues, family and friends.”
Science is not perfect; new experiments will always change previous assumptions, but the current consensus is clear: vaccines are safe and conspiracies are bogus.
“I think the data absolutely supports the mandates for COVID vaccines,” Art Caplan, professor of bioethics at Langone Medical Center at New York University, told WebMD. “They are remarkably effective, remarkably safe. “
Asking for vaccines is not only medically justified, it is morally and legally justified.
“True freedom for all could not exist,” Judge Harlan wrote, if each individual could exercise their rights “regardless of the harm that might be caused to others”.
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at [email protected]