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Steve V. Roberts: Ensuring the common good

Houston Methodist Hospital set a deadline this week for its 26,000 employees: Get vaccinated against the coronavirus, or lose your job. Almost everyone complied, except for a small group of dissenters, who are now suing the hospital.

Jennifer Bridges, the nurse who leads the anti-vaccination forces, told Texas Monthly magazine: “This is supposed to be America; you’re supposed to have civil rights and constitutional rights, your freedom of choice. … Nobody should be forced to put anything into their body if they’re not OK with it.”

Vaccine reluctance is a complex issue with many causes, from sincere religious objections to false conspiracy theories. But those reasons are often rooted in the misguided assumption voiced by Bridges: that an individual’s “civil rights and constitutional rights” supersede the rights of society to mandate behavior, to place the common good ahead of “freedom of choice.”

Even the most basic rights have limits, especially when an individual’s action impinges on the well-being of others. You can own a gun, but only if you get a permit and don’t use it carelessly. You can speak freely, but not to incite violence that jeopardizes public safety. You can drive a car, but first you have to pass a test, and then obey rules about speeding, drunkenness and other reckless behaviors. And you should be required to get vaccinated when you are susceptible to a deadly disease that can infect others.

The Supreme Court made precisely this argument in 1905, when it upheld a Massachusetts law that mandated vaccinations to contain a smallpox epidemic. Speaking for a 7 to 2 majority, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote an opinion in Jacobson v. Massachusetts that remains an essential principle of American law:

“In every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members, the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.”

Harlan’s test is clearly met today. This is a time of great danger, the safety of the general public is at stake, and vaccination mandates like the one imposed by Houston Methodist are certainly reasonable. Moreover, the Biden administration is struggling to meet its goal of having 70% of adult Americans vaccinated by July 4.

The KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor reports that while 62% of adults have received a shot, about one-third remain reluctant. Injection rates have plummeted, supplies go unused, and NPR reports: “Now some researchers are increasingly worried that this reticence will be enough to prevent the nation from reaching what’s known as herd immunity, the point at which the coronavirus can no longer spread easily through the population and transmission peters out.”

“Vaccine hesitancy is a big problem for all of us,” said Ali Mokdad, who tracks coronavirus trends at the University of Washington.

A public health officer told me that some devout believers insist, “God will protect me.”

Others, including many soldiers, are simply stubborn and don’t want to be told what to do.

All of these motives, however, are aggravated by Trumpism and the wanton rejection of science — indeed, the rejection of any fact that contradicts the believer’s prejudices. It’s no accident that in a recent Monmouth University poll, 36% of Republicans expressed doubts about the vaccines compared to only 6% of Democrats.

Factor in another damaging dimension of Trumpism: the rapid spread of disinformation that can be as insidious and intractable as any virus. Bridges, the Houston nurse, admitted to WebMD, “I’ll be honest … I’ve kind of fell into this little rabbit hole.”

Texas Monthly reports, “Bridges said her distrust stems from reading articles shared among her network of co-workers, family and friends.”

Science is not perfect; new experiments will always alter previous assumptions, but the current consensus is crystal clear: The vaccines are safe, and the conspiracies are wrong.

“I think the data absolutely supports mandates for COVID vaccines,” Art Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, told WebMD. “They are remarkably effective, remarkably safe.”

Requiring vaccines is not just medically justified, it’s morally and legally justified. “Real liberty for all could not exist,” wrote Justice Harlan, if each individual could exercise rights “regardless of the injury that may be done to others.”

Amen.

   

Steven Roberts teaches  at George Washington University. Email him at
stevecokie@gmail.com.

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