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Vaccine Mandates Are An American Tradition

A couple holds sign as they join hundreds of other demonstrators gathering to protest against mandated vaccines outside of the Michigan State Capitol on August 6, 2021 in Lansing. There were 44 counties in Michigan at high or substantial levels of community coronavirus transmission, according to the CDC as of August 5, 2021. (Emily Elconin/Getty Images)
A couple holds sign as they join hundreds of other demonstrators gathering to protest against mandated vaccines outside of the Michigan State Capitol on August 6, 2021 in Lansing. There were 44 counties in Michigan at high or substantial levels of community coronavirus transmission, according to the CDC as of August 5, 2021. (Emily Elconin/Getty Images)

"Health Mandates History 101" is now in session.

You’ll recall our last class discussed the quickening amble towards sticks instead of carrots as goads to COVID-19 vaccination. In my state of Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker has made shots a condition of employment at long-term care facilities, the strategy embraced by major hospitals in the commonwealth. Ditto for higher education nationally (including my employer, Boston University) and for swelling numbers of the Fortune 500, from Disney to Google to Walmart. President Biden ordered federal workers to vaccinate or else mask-and-test. New York City will require proof of vaccination for entry into public recreation — restaurants, theaters, gyms.

Today’s lecture focuses on the thinking behind any objection to these wholly reasonable measures.

No one argues against exempting those with medical contraindications to vaccination, or against helping those with access obstacles. Beyond those groups, however, some objectors to vaccines and mandates appear, to put it charitably, not of sound mind. The merely uneducated impersonate historians, declaring that medicating people against their will violates a longstanding principle of individual freedom dear to every right-thinking patriot.

[S]ome objectors to vaccines and mandates appear, to put it charitably, not of sound mind.

Un-American,” one doctor declares of vaccine passports, while a similarly terrified columnist warns that “your papers, please” has been “synonymous with fascist states.” Boston’s usually level-headed acting mayor, Kim Janey, walked back ill-advised comparisons of passports to papers required of oppressed people during slavery, Jim Crow, and xenophobic spasms. She’s now working on a vaccine mandate for city employees.

Since many who think this way define “patriotism” as storming federal buildings to halt fair election procedures, we shouldn’t be shocked that they, well, think like this. To steal from The New Republic, their take on health care mandates, vaccination and otherwise, is “historically illiterate,” for mandates are “as American as apple pie.”

That history starts with Massachusetts — not the deep blue state, the Puritan colony. Our sober-minded ancestors passed our first quarantine law in 1647, following earlier, informal quarantines among the colonies against smallpox.

Our revolt against King George saw the aborning nation’s first inoculation mandate when General Washington ordered his troops immunized against smallpox. (Extra credit for students who can identify the method employed back then: soldiers inhaling or having their arms scratched with matter from smallpox pustules.)

Our revolt against King George saw the aborning nation’s first inoculation mandate when General Washington ordered his troops immunized against smallpox.

After independence, states often quarantined ship travelers on board for a time before they could come ashore. Nineteenth-century authorities frequently imposed quarantines for outbreaks of smallpox, typhoid, cholera, plague, yellow fever and diphtheria.

The foregoing comes from a Lawfare article on “The Long History of Coercive Health Responses in American Law.” It goes on to discuss a 1905 Supreme Court decision, again involving my state (Jacobson v. Massachusetts), that affirmed mandatory vaccination, in this case for smallpox. That long-ago finding echoes today: Courts cited it to uphold state quarantines imposed during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak. Today, every state mandates various vaccinations of schoolchildren.

So damning public health mandates as un-American is misinformed. You philosophy majors will recognize the ethical underpinnings of such coercion, with our COVID-19 crisis Exhibit A: Allowing the unvaccinated to indulge their recklessness has prolonged the pandemic, multiplying the chances for even more variants to develop that might not be tamed by our vaccines. Mandates protect the public from the selfish.


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Not that any of that will matter to the unsound-mind types I mentioned earlier. The misinformed might, with a little homework, make the grade in this class. I’m less sanguine about, for example, those who raise so-called religious objections.

Virtually no religion has a beef with vaccines, and the Vatican has given its imprimatur to those developed with cell lines from decades-old abortions. Peel the religious-objections onion and you’ll instead find screwball assertions — for example, that a jab in the arm confers Revelation’s satanic “mark of the beast.” One minister took to Facebook with a biblical verse-based rejection of that nonsense. Misreading scripture is religious ignorance, not religious belief.

We also grade down anti-vaxxers who believe Big Brother snuck vague, ominous ingredients into these life-saving medicines. ”You hear that on TV, but to see patients saying things like that in front of you really is pretty appalling,” says an exasperated and exhausted Florida doctor, whose state has become “America’s COVID epicenter,” its hospitals swamped with the unvaccinated.

With Trump support overlapping aversion to vaccination, some compare the defeated president’s cult to Jonestown, lemmings marching off self-destruction’s cliff. Others, noting stories of heart-wrenching, deathbed pleas for vaccine among unvaccinated COVID patients, argue that the populist right isn’t suicidal, just selfish. By this reckoning, refusers harbor depraved indifference to the COVID-vulnerable, among whose ranks they didn’t consider themselves until, for some, it was too late.

Our final assignment before the bell: Summarize the evidence for and against both positions. And, if you side with the selfishness camp, what perversion of Judeo-Christian teaching finds scriptural warrant for that vice?

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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