Rights advocates versus public health: voting on vaccination

On March 3, Maine will vote to decide whether to repeal a new law that removes religious and philosophical exemptions from the requirement that schoolchildren must be vaccinated.

Beyond its implications for public health and religious rights, the vote raises fundamental issues about the role of government and personal liberty.

The U.S. is proud of its emphasis on individual liberty.  The underlying purpose of the Constitution is to establish a government that protects individual rights.

In the extreme, the American system would favor as little government as possible to assure that the natural rights of each person would not be limited or eliminated.

Of course, the system could not operate to protect individual rights unless the government had real powers.  The government represents the interest of the community, as defined by representatives elected by the people.

In short, the system depends on a balance between individual rights and the common good.  The balance is decided democratically.

Most democracies in the world favor the community interests of citizens.  The U.S., almost alone, places more weight on the individual rights than on the community.  For example, almost no other country protects rights as extensively as the First Amendment.

The fundamental function of government is to ensure public health and safety.  It adopts laws to carry out this responsibility, ranging from police powers to measures to prevent the spread of disease.

The Constitution ensures the right of people to practice their religion or no religion according to each person’s beliefs.  It also bans religions from controlling the laws, though lawmakers may be influenced by their beliefs.

Does that mean the government cannot require individual action if people believe they have a guaranteed right, particularly a religious right?

If so, can the ability of a duly elected government to protect public health or safety be overruled by the right of individuals to follow their beliefs?

The constitutional thinking must have been that people’s rights can be limited if they harm the rights of others.  Protecting rights should not amount to giving some people higher rights than others.

No right can be absolute.  It must take account of its effect on others.

That is the logic of the vaccination law.  It says that, whatever your personal rights protecting your beliefs, you cannot block a proven measure that protects others in your community from the risk of serious illness or death.

Opponents of the law dishonestly try to make it seem that it was written to increase the profits of major drug manufacturers.  Their gains from selling vaccines are a tiny share of their profits.  But the threat of contagious disease to public health is large.

The coronavirus threat apparently arose out of a single market in Wuhan, China.  It now affects the entire world and people have died.  Preventing the spread of such disease is worthwhile.

But the vaccination debate is part of a far greater issue.  The U.S. provides less support for health care and many other human needs than do other democracies.  It avoids joint action that could both protect rights and take advantage of a sense of community to promote public well-being.

Opponents of more community action by the government claim that its supporters are socialists who want big government to override individual freedom.  Socialism is a dirty word, mainly because the Soviet Union, an outright dictatorship, called itself socialist.

Some voters have been convinced that government action on health care or education or gun safety threatens their individual rights.  They see a pure either-or choice.

They worry about excessive government control.  Is that the case in Canada or Great Britain?  It must be the case, they believe, in Scandinavian countries.  What about Switzerland, a country as conservative as the U.S.?

Those who oppose policies designed to benefit all of society out of fear that they will lose their rights gain something and lose something.  They may be able to do just as they wish, without regard for others.  But they may later suffer when others assert their rights.

Opponents suggest that a free society will produce the best possible results.  In a free market, people will only buy from companies that treat their workers well.  Perhaps only a few people would be at risk if some refuse vaccinations.

All of this sounds simple, if not simplistic.  But it is just what is at stake in the vaccination debate.

The divisiveness now prevalent in American society is the product of people unwilling to compromise for the community good.

The risk is that we insist on our rights and ignore our community until we must all pay the price.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.