Is It Ethical to Force People to Get Vaccinated?
Updated: Feb 25, 2022
Vaccines come before individual freedom, just like any other civic duties
Almost a year ago, on January 8, 2021, I received the first shot of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine against Covid-19. As I stepped into the both, my voice caught in my throat and my eyes filled with tears. A mixture of emotions overwhelmed me. I was humbled by the privilege of being one of the first people on Earth to be protected from this horrible disease. Being a scientist, I was fully aware of the amazing technological marvel that was about to be injected into my arm. And yes, I was happy that all the fear that I had felt for the entire year of 2020 was over. I was no longer in danger of dying or developing lifelong symptoms from the new coronavirus. I could get out of confinement and walk freely out into the world again.
To this day, I am in shock, disbelief and anger that a lot of people do not see this vaccine the same way. They have to be actually compelled to receive it.
It’s like having to force the passengers of the Titanic at gunpoint into one of the lifeboats.
The question I examine here is: do we have the right to do that?
There are several interrelated questions here
The right to body autonomy is a basic human right that is the foundation of other rights. For example, we have a right not to be sexually abused because it infringes on our body autonomy. My body is mine and I decide when it should be touched. Likewise, undesired medical interventions would violate body autonomy by doing something to my body that I don’t want. Doesn’t vaccination violate this body autonomy?
Depending on what vaccine is being given, it may result in harm. Most vaccine produce mild secondary effects. However, for some people, getting vaccinated can result in a serious disease. Shouldn’t taking that risk be my personal decision?
In his article Vaccines Are For Winner Only @Carlos Garbiras also raised the issue that opposing vaccination is a matter of free speech. If somebody thinks that vaccines are not good, shouldn’t he be free to express his opposition?
Vaccines are critically important for the common health
I once heard the famous evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin say, in a lecture at UCLA, that the great improvements in the quality of life and increase in longevity brought by science were not due to new medicines as much as to two other things
Public sanitation, including sewers, pest eradication, clean water, a healthy food supply, and a healthcare system that isolates and treats people before they can pass a disease to other people.
Vaccines, and a system run by the state that ensures that everybody gets vaccinated.
He was right. It was only thanks to these things that we were able to eliminate many of the infectious diseases that plagued humanity before the 20th century. For example, the bubonic plague, which produced many deadly pandemics in Europe, was propagated by fleas living on rats. Pest eradication played a key role in its elimination. Cholera was brought under control by a combination of water purification, sewers and vaccines.
These days you hear a lot of people parroting the anti-vaxxer’s lie that vaccines are not effective. The truth is that vaccines have led to the complete eradication of two diseases: smallpox and rinderpest (in ruminants). The viruses that produced these diseases are now considered extinct.
“Five more infectious diseases have been identified as of April 2008 as potentially eradicable with current technology by the Carter Center International Task Force for Disease Eradication—measles, mumps, rubella, lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis) and cysticercosis (pork tapeworm).” Wikipedia.
The current Covid-19 pandemic has a silver lining: the invention and large-scale validation of mRNA vaccines.
Previous vaccines consisted of injecting viruses or bacteria that were previously deactivated - killed by heat or radiation to render them non-infective. A new step in vaccination was the use of single proteins from infectious organism to prime the immune system against them.
Messenger RNA (mRNA) is a nucleic acid molecule similar to DNA that produces a protein when it is translated in the ribosomes, the little molecular machines inside cells where all proteins are made. A single molecule of mRNA can produce many copies of the protein it encodes. In a mRNA vaccine, the viral protein is expelled into the blood, where it activates the immune system.
A key step in the invention of mRNA vaccines was to pack the mRNA into minuscule droplets with a lipid membrane similar to the cell membrane, called liposomes. This provides a way to get the mRNA into the cells, because liposomes fuse naturally with the cell membrane. Also, liposomes protect the chemically unstable mRNA molecule. This is also why mRNA vaccines have to be stored at very low temperatures, -80 degrees Centigrade. Liposomes are made of the same phospholipids that make the cell membranes, and therefore are non-toxic.
mRNA vaccines represent an enormous breakthrough in medicine. Using the genetic code, it is easy to translate back and forth between the amino acid sequence of any protein and the nucleotide sequence of mRNA. Modern molecular biology techniques had made it possible to sequence the proteins and the DNA of most known pathogens, and also to synthesize DNA and mRNA encoding for these proteins. It is relatively simple to transduce DNA to mRNA and vice versa, using enzymes that can be purchased from any major distributor of lab products. A technique called Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) - used in any molecular biology lab in the world - can turn minuscule amounts of RNA or DNA into amounts large enough to make millions of vaccines.
When you put all this together, you have a technology that can take you, in a matter of weeks, from the sequencing a protein of a new virus or bacteria to making millions of vaccines against that pathogen. We can beat the rapidly mutating SARS-Covid-19 virus using this technology.
Now we have the means to eliminate all infectious diseases
Therefore, the mRNA vaccine technology developed thanks to the granting of large amount of government dollars to biotech companies during 2020 have made it possible, not only to defeat this pandemic, but to get rid of any other infectious disease. There is even talk about creating vaccines against cancer by targeting proteins produced by cancerous cells. Long-sought vaccines that had defeated the efforts of scientists for decades - against HIV/AIDS, malaria and the common cold, for example - are now feasible.
In less than a decade, we can rid the world of all major infectious diseases and win a major battle against cancer.
We just need two things:
A commitment from the governments of industrialized nations to produce the vaccines and to distribute them worldwide. Including to developing countries that cannot pay for them.
A willingness from people to receive the vaccines.
Both things should be no-brainers. Unfortunately, that’s where we are stuck.
The ethics of vaccination
Since vaccines were invented in the 19th Century, people have welcomed them as the gift to humanity they really are. Vaccination campaigns were demanded by the Left and found little opposition from the Right. The anti-vax movement that originated in wealthy elites and has now spread to anti-science conservatives has changed the equation.
As I said at the beginning of this article, there are valid arguments to be made against vaccines, stemming from the right to body autonomy. I would counter them by arguing that this right is not absolute but limited by the collective right to health. Furthermore, other restrictions to body autonomy are widely recognized in the legal systems of any country in the world.
I would break my argument down into the following points.
Your good health is not something that was bestowed on you by nature. You owe it to the work and sacrifices of past generations. If people had not been vaccinated against smallpox, poliomyelitis, tuberculosis, rabies, tetanus, measles, etc., you may have had one of those diseases already. You may have even died from them. By getting vaccinated, you are just paying forward the favors that past generations gave you.
The enormous benefits to public health brought by vaccination campaigns far outweigh any harm that the vaccines may produce to individuals. The evidence shows that these harms are minimal and preventable.
Not everybody has to be vaccinated, just enough people to achieve herd immunity. However, the decision to exempt somebody from vaccination should be done by doctors, so that these exemptions are reserved to people who would be harmed by the vaccine. If anybody could capriciously exempt himself, he would take that right away from people who really need it.
Getting vaccinated is not a violation of free speech. You are free to hold any opinion that you want and talk about it loud and clear. But vaccination belongs to the category of doing, not speaking. You should get that shot, even while protesting vociferously that it is not necessary.
Quarantine, too, is a violation of your freedom and body autonomy. Yet, it is widely recognized that the state has the right to confine you into your house or a hospital room to prevent you from spreading a disease that you have.
I have always opposed the military draft because I don’t think the state has the right to force you to undergo military training and to fight for a cause that is not yours. I was drafted myself into the Spanish military, where I serve for 14 months. I view that time as little more than slavery. I lost almost all my body autonomy: I had to sleep, eat, exercise and work as I was told, with no ability to decide how to do these things. However, if we had to fight an evil like the Nazis during World War 2 or an outright invasion of our country, I would agree that a draft was a necessary evil. If we recognize that the state has the power to force men to go into the military, to kill and be killed for the country, getting a vaccine is very little to ask in comparison.
Therefore, vaccination falls squarely into the category of civic duties. Like paying taxes, following evacuation orders, getting quarantined or getting drafted. Some circumstances trump personal autonomy.
Individual rights need to always be balanced against the rights of your community.