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Michael Gerson: 'Medical freedom' is endangering public health
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Michael Gerson: 'Medical freedom' is endangering public health

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WASHINGTON

I know that politics is not always a feast of reason, but there has to be some line between normal levels of absurdity and lethal madness. Wherever you locate that limit, Gov. Chris Sununu, R-N.H., is on the wrong side of it.

Sununu recently signed one of the “medical freedom” bills making their way through the Solomonic subcommittees of Republican state legislatures. The New Hampshire version boldly declares that citizens have a “natural, essential and inherent right to bodily integrity, free from any threat or compulsion by government to accept an immunization.” The law, while phrased like a late addition to the Bill of Rights, does have a qualification. It doesn’t affect the state law regarding the half dozen or so vaccines required for a child to enter school.

Seldom has fine print been more revealing. Why do we have vaccine requirements for school attendance? Because parents have a natural, essential and inherent right to determine what chemicals are injected in their children — until enough reckless, witless parents refuse to vaccinate their offspring, creating an environment where children needlessly suffer and die of preventable diseases.

There is a very small but measurable risk that a child can have an adverse reaction to vaccination. Yet the state requires childhood vaccinations anyway because there is a far greater risk to children from rampant measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis and diphtheria. State mandates often include exemptions when parents have strong religious or philosophic objections. These can be dangerous loopholes when too broadly drawn. But states are at least trying to set a bar of seriousness. It’s one thing for parents to be strict Christian Scientists; it’s another for parents to have heard a scary Internet rumor or to be too busy to get their children vaccinated.

Sununu and other Republicans are engaged in performative libertarianism. But even the most strident forms of that creed come with a qualification. It is John Stuart Mill who is most closely associated with the “harm principle” — that humans should be free to act, unless their actions bring harm to others. I think this is impoverished as a moral theory. But it accurately describes the mission of public health.

Epidemiologists and public health professionals are charged with determining when an individual sickness becomes a threat to the community, then recommending and helping implement actions by the community to limit or defeat that threat. They live by a slightly modified version of Mill’s principle: Americans have the natural, inherent, bodily right to throw up in their own bathrooms. They don’t have an absolute right to use their body in such a way that the tiny pathogens riding in it spread a deadly pandemic disease to others.

Sometimes there are hard calls in determining the appropriate level of intervention. The use of vaccine mandates to boost national coverage is not one of them. We’re a nation with vast piles of coronavirus vaccine doses that involve negligible heath risk to take, and that go unused for trivial, foolish reasons. Those people who currently refuse the vaccine (without health reasons), and those who encourage others to refuse the vaccine, are causing needless death (whatever their intention). It is not just the right, but the moral responsibility of government at every level to institute policies that move the public toward herd immunity, save innocent lives, and return security and prosperity to our country.

The decision by the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association and other health groups to endorse mandatory COVID vaccination of health personnel is admirable and could be a spur to action in other areas. It is also a minimal and obvious step. With many health professionals frantically urging Americans to be vaccinated, the health industry has been undermining that message through its own poor uptake. American medicine has been mixing its own message.

It is good to have that message unmixed — though the industry has some work to do in ironing out the inconsistencies. Why in heaven’s name isn’t there a national mandate for nursing home workers to get the flu shot? Why would children place their parent in a nursing home without a flu shot mandate, unless they’re impatient to know what’s in the will?

Requiring COVID vaccinations for everyone who works in health facilities, and for everyone working or learning in high schools and colleges, is obviously needed. Allowing and encouraging private businesses to require their staff and customers to be vaccinated is an obvious step for leaders at every level.

But let’s also deal with the matter of stigma. Republican public officials who bray about defending “bodily integrity” — while actual American bodies needlessly go to the morgue — have ceased to serve the public.

Michael Gerson’s email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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