My daughters’ friend lost her father to COVID this week. 50-something, father of five children, two teens still at home . . . I am very aware of how serious this disease is. I have been urging people to take this seriously since it first came on the radar in early 2020, I have supported a wide range of public policy initiatives to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, and I am in favor of vaccination.
I am myself vaccinated. My nineteen-year-old experienced a serious vaccine reaction (she’s fine now), and although I strongly disapprove of the way her school was threatening students with dire penalties if they did not get vaccinated, and I strongly disapprove of the complete fecklessness of her school’s idiotic excuses for public health policy, I was the person who encouraged her to get vaccinated, I did so because a review of the available data suggested this was the best healthcare choice for her, and even after the scary side effects of the vaccine, I stand by that decision.
I am not against the COVID vaccines. Not. at. all.
I do, however, think there are very serious moral problems with President Biden’s vaccine mandate.
The moral case against the mandate is more than just conscientious objection to the vaccine.
Because I believe in freedom of conscience, of course I believe in exemptions for religious or conscientious objectors. As a Catholic I both am willing to accept (perhaps too easily) the guidance of reputable Catholic bioethicists on the morality of the available COVID vaccines, and also recognize that other Catholics may hold sincere, religiously-motivated objections to the vaccines (even when not mandated) on moral grounds. The question of the vaccines’ ties to abortion is a serious matter, and Catholics of good will can hold religious positions on either side of that debate. Those firmly held beliefs should be respected.
Until proven otherwise, I’m assuming the Biden mandate’s religious exemption provides adequate conscience protections. Since I’m a radical 1990’s liberal in this regard, yes I absolutely believe that conscience protections apply to personal philosophical or ethical beliefs, regardless of the individual’s formal religious affiliation or lack thereof.
The moral case against the mandate comes down to defrauding the poor.
I know! Conservatives aren’t supposed to care about that! Well, here’s what the Bible has to say:
To take away a neighbor’s living is to commit murder;
to deny a laborer wages is to shed blood.
Pretty unequivocal. I know that’s just two verses, help yourself to the rest of the book. God has a lot to say about not depriving people of their livelihoods. To do so is extremely serious.
The Biden administration has made mandatory vaccination a requirement for access to any work at all at large employers — which is to say most employers, including the employers of many low-wage workers, entry-level workers, workers supporting families, and workers who do not have alternative ways to make a living elsewhere.
To threaten access to those jobs is very serious. The consequences for non-vaccination are onerous, spurious, and clearly meant to punish employees and employers until they break down and comply. Can I imagine a scenario where such draconian measures might be morally justifiable? Perhaps. But I am not, at all, convinced that we are in that situation.
Let’s look again at legitimate self-defense.
As the Bible makes clear, to take away someone’s livelihood is akin to shedding blood. We have, of course, situations where one may — sometimes even must — resort to deadly force. I don’t think the announced vaccine mandate meets that requirement because existing COVID-19 vaccines are effective against serious disease.
We already have a way to protect employees and customers from deadly danger. That approach, combined with moral means I’ll mention below, is sufficient. An axiom of legitimate self-defense is that we limit ourselves only to what force is necessary. This mandate is not necessary.
What are some other ways we can protect the COVID-vulnerable without denying people access to work?
Improve ventilation and air-quality standards for workplaces. This is a legitimate role for OSHA, and protects workers rather than denying them access to employment.
Require adequate protective equipment for healthcare workers. It is absolutely obscene that any healthcare worker should be contracting COVID on the job this late in the pandemic.
Expand the ADA to explicitly protect the COVID-vulnerable. Employees who cannot be vaccinated due to medical contraindications, who do not generate adequate immunity in response to the vaccine, or whose health conditions leave them at high risk of serious disease even after vaccination, deserve reasonable workplace accommodations. These accommodations could include working remote, working on-site in low-risk workspaces, and strict protocols for PPE and isolation from potentially-contagious colleagues and customers.
Facilitate access to unemployment or disability benefits for the COVID-vulnerable. Clear the red tape so that those few who need to isolate because available vaccines are not sufficient are able to maintain their livelihood even if they can only find safe work part-time, intermittently, or not at all.
Strengthen the ADA’s enforcement. Massive topic. But it’s a serious need, if you actually want to protect vulnerable workers. I’ll just say here, and then expand on the issue another day: It’s possible to beef up enforcement without defaulting to adversarial or punitive measures.
Radically improve access to cheap, non-invasive COVID-testing. One of the most galling aspects of the announced mandates is mandatory weekly COVID testing for asymptomatic workers. We don’t have that kind of access to testing. I’ve waited in the lines. I know. The US needs to radically improve its ability to offer cheap, reliable, over-the-counter testing for COVID, flu, and any other serious infections that are easily spread in schools and workplaces.
Radically improve access to reliable testing for immunity to COVID-19. Our big question mark in all this is: Who is and is not safe from serious disease? Answer that, and we can begin making targeted, effective public health policies.
I’m sure you can think of other moral means as well.
What’s the big deal over mandatory vaccinations?
Again, reiterating: I think that getting vaccinated is the prudent course for most adults.
However, the moral threshold for denying someone access to work is a very high bar.
Even though I think that the existing COVID vaccines are the better choice for most adults, they remain experimental and they are not without risk. Yes, we now have a lot of data on the short-term safety of the vaccines. Some of that data, by the way, indicates that a whole category of entry-level employees are not better off getting vaccinated.
It is one thing for me as a mother to look at photos of my 19-year-old’s swollen face post-vaccine, know that she’s fine now, and reassure myself that we made the right call. In any case, we aren’t omniscient. Medical decisions involve weighing risks and benefits.
It is hubris to think that anyone — any doctor, any politician, any citizen — can decide what is the best medical decision for a hundred million strangers. It is beyond hubris to decide that, given we have other effective ways to keep fellow employees safe, that someone ought to be denied their livelihood because they don’t think my assessment of their medical risks is the correct assessment.
New information could change this calculus.
Setting aside conscientious objections, employment-denying vaccine mandates are high-stakes, high-threshold matters of prudential judgement. What would change my moral analysis? New data that showed:
- The existing vaccines do not prevent serious disease. Currently the evidence is quite strong that being vaccinated is, for most people, adequate protection against COVID-19, regardless of exposure to unvaccinated persons.
- AND that existing vaccines do prevent spread of disease. Currently the evidence is mounting that being vaccinated makes breakthrough infections less contagious, but vaccinated employees are still a source of infection. Therefore mandating vaccination does not in itself protect the vulnerable.
- AND that alternative forms of protection for employees and customers (personal protective equipment, ventilation, etc.) are not adequate to prevent infection.
If all three of these were true, we would find ourselves in a position to seriously weigh whether a vaccine mandate was so absolutely necessary that we had no other choice. We would still be obliged, in that scenario, to allow for naturally-acquired immunity as an alternative to vaccination. But ultimately, the Bible makes it clear that denying someone a livelihood requires meeting the same high standard as one uses for decisions involving the shedding of blood.
I don’t think Biden’s announced vaccine mandate in any way meets that standard.
Photo: The ruins of Coventry Cathedral, with a pleasant outdoor seating area in the foreground and a rainbow in the background, by Andrew Walker, CC 2.5, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.