I know the reaction for many religious conservatives, of which I consider myself one, is to recoil at the passage of Senate Bill 277. (SB277, if you recall, is a California state bill that removes non-medical exemptions for vaccine requirements for school settings.) But I’m not recoiling. Here’s why—
I think that we can agree that the role of the state is protection of the common good— enforcement of laws, protection from aggression between individuals or transnational aggression, etc.— that would not occur in anarchy. It’s not a black and white line, surely. But there are a few reasons why SB277 can arguably be a proper exercise of that role:
While making individual medical decisions is not the role of the state because the threat of the individual is only to himself, that isn’t the case with vaccines and diseases; anyone who engages in public life is not an island. These communicable diseases are not apparent before they are contagious. Even if we could optimistically believe that people would quarantine themselves when they know they are contagious (which Ebola and the recent outbreaks have shown is naive), this isn’t even a possibility. This is why the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination mandates is constitutional, and has been considered so for over a century. Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905) was reaffirmed as it applies to schooling in Zucht v. King (1922).
SB277 does not force anyone to undergo immunization, only to deprive them of access to those settings most at risk for the spread of disease. “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” You have no right to demand that the state accommodate your desired choice if it means forfeiting its legitimate role, especially in the protection of the weak. You cannot say that you agree with that principle as it applies to abortion and euthanasia and then say you disagree with SB277 on principle just because for once you are the person shouting, “My body, my choice.”
Surely, there are many reasoned arguments to be made against this bill on principle. Most of them I must reject, coming from that intersection of extreme libertarianism and progressivism that places personal autonomy as the highest good, which I cannot reconcile with the nature of political authority and human freedom §. But in the realm of philosophy, there is at least a dialogue to be had. But, let’s be frank. The “religious” and “philosophical” objections espoused by the vast majority seeking to retain those exemptions are nothing but a ruse, a guise for conspiracy-laden science denial.
Finally, if you still think that even after a century of precedent and decades of similar laws in the “police states” of Mississippi and W. Virginia, SB277 is going to lead necessarily to a “slippery slope“, I ask you consider that notion in light of the Hobby Lobby decision. The reason the birth control mandate in that case was deemed unconstitutional is because the criteria for making someone violate his beliefs requires that there be a truly compelling government interest and it is the least intrusive means possible. Even in our eroded moral and legal culture, employer-provided birth control coverage could not be so justified. Unlike the HHS mandate, however, the control and elimination of preventable diseases is a compelling government/societal interest, well established in both legal and moral precedent. The costs— financial, material, human— are far too great. And, for as long as these terrible diseases exist, making sure those who can be vaccinated are vaccinated, especially in those settings most at risk for their spread, is the least intrusive means.
Does it limit the exercise of the “choice” of certain individuals? Yes, all laws do. But before you really get up in arms, I would caution you of one thing: Be cautious at how closely you associate yourself with the rhetoric of “choice.” It is gross naiveté to think that you can present an ethic that seems to say, “My choice is the highest good; no person’s welfare should get in the way of my choice, even if it’s an innocent child” and not scandalize the pro-life movement. We cannot build up the Culture of Life if we sequester our concern for life to the womb or to the hospice. We cannot be considered a people of Love if just a handful of threats to life—a handful that primarily demand other people’s choices be restricted, not so much our own— are met with a fiery resistance and compassion for the weak.
Love demands far, far more of us.
Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
§1898: Every human community needs an authority to govern it. The foundation of such authority lies in human nature. It is necessary for the unity of the state. Its role is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society.
§1738: Freedom is exercised in relationships between human beings. Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order.
§1739 Freedom and sin. Man’s freedom is limited and fallible. In fact, man failed. He freely sinned. By refusing God’s plan of love, he deceived himself and became a slave to sin. This first alienation engendered a multitude of others. From its outset, human history attests the wretchedness and oppression born of the human heart in consequence of the abuse of freedom.
§1740 Threats to freedom. The exercise of freedom does not imply a right to say or do everything. It is false to maintain that man, “the subject of this freedom,” is “an individual who is fully self-sufficient and whose finality is the satisfaction of his own interests in the enjoyment of earthly goods.” Moreover, the economic, social, political, and cultural conditions that are needed for a just exercise of freedom are too often disregarded or violated. Such situations of blindness and injustice injure the moral life and involve the strong as well as the weak in the temptation to sin against charity. By deviating from the moral law man violates his own freedom, becomes imprisoned within himself, disrupts neighborly fellowship, and rebels against divine truth.