Vaccines. Like religion and politics, it’s become one of those topics that we are told that we “just shouldn’t discuss” with those who may hold a different view. Especially throughout this difficult year, in which we have all experienced the heartache and loss associated with a pandemic, the debate has become even more heated as we face a decision about how best to move forward. Should vaccines be mandatory to promote public health? What about our personal freedoms? How do we protect our most vulnerable while also protecting our individual liberties?
The conflict between individual rights and public health is not a new one. Laws that attempt to protect or preserve life at the expense of individual freedoms range from mandatory school vaccinations to the requirement for seat belts in automobiles or helmets for motorcyclists. The prevailing legal precedent has established that in cases where individual behavior can impact society at large, then society has a right to limit that behavior. In the case of motorcyclists, for example, the choice to wear a helmet may seem on the surface only to affect the health of the motorcyclist. If there is an accident, that individual will pay the cost of the accident. However, the cost is not limited to that individual, as society pays the price associated with emergency services, medical treatment, perhaps even disability and unemployment. Therefore, this action that seems limited to personal choice is really one with a much wider impact.
Similarly, vaccinations may seem like a choice related only to an individual’s inoculation from disease. If that individual chooses to risk his or her health by not vaccinating, is it society’s job to intervene? An objective look at the benefits of mass vaccination suggest that yes, this is society’s job. Vaccination of the individual has immediate health impact for the individual, but also contributes to the overall state of protection for society. Further, it is incumbent upon us as a society to help look out for those among us who cannot comply with vaccination for medical reasons. Those who are immunocompromised, for example, rely on those healthy enough to be vaccinated to reduce their exposure to disease. We must balance everyone’s individual liberty with the liberty of all.
Politics has invaded our lives to an unprecedented extent, and unfortunately, it has colored scientific decisions with partisan hues. Being for or against masks or vaccination or accepting scientific discovery has devolved into a litmus test of party loyalty on both sides of the aisle, when it should be an opportunity to put aside political differences and reach across the ideological divide to agree on the common ground of scientific consensus.