Many who resist COVID-19 vaccination insist they have a say over what goes into their bodies. An individual’s freedom to choose is the foundation for their position. Yet, there are times when such freedom to choose takes a back seat to what is required to protect our nation’s freedoms for all to live safely and securely. This provides one basis for President Biden’s blanket vaccination mandates for millions of Americans.
One role of certain laws in a complex democratic society is to create guardrails that protect and safeguard population wellbeing. Lawmakers in our political system write and enact such laws and our legal system enforces them. No one has to abide by them, but when violated, there are consequences. People exercise their individual freedom to choose whether to stay within such guardrails. However, in overstepping them, they risk losing money and some of their personal freedoms.
What are some examples?
Several states have instituted cell phone use and texting bans while operating an automobile. People certainly have the freedom to violate such laws. However, when doing so they are subject to penalties and fines, which may lead to losing their driver’s license. Moreover, they place themselves at higher risk for distraction, which when driving in congested urban areas can lead to accidents with the associated property damage and injuries to both themselves and others. In such cases, the safety of other drivers and pedestrians who may be injured override their individual freedom to choose.
The same principles hold true for speed limits on highways and driving under the influence. When the individual’s freedom to choose exposes other people to avoidable risks, the freedom to choose no longer applies.
In the private sector, corporations set policies that serve the best interests of their customers, employees and shareholders. If employees disagree with any such policies, they have the freedom to choose to seek alternative employment. If policies make it difficult for the organization to function and conduct business, they may need to rethink their policies. A free-market system offers people the freedom to pick where they work. It also means that people may need to accept required conditions of employment or look elsewhere.
Cities and counties are enacting vaccine requirement laws for people to enter restaurants, bars and other public venues. If people are unwilling to abide by such laws, they lose their freedom to enter such venues and accrue the associated benefits and pleasures. This means that an individual’s freedom to choose limits other freedoms.
Ironically, many who remain vaccine-resistant do not support women’s freedom to choose what goes on inside their bodies when terminating their pregnancy. The complexity of this issue explains why the freedom to choose argument is fraught with inconsistencies and contradictions, though both sides of this debate are convinced that their positions are indeed the correct ones.
In times of crisis, people are prone to come together and sacrifice some of their personal freedoms for the greater good. We saw this after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Over the past 20 months, we have been under attack from a viral terrorist, which has led to unprecedented illness and deaths, whether directly from the virus or indirectly from the societal changes instituted to combat the impact of the virus.
Freedom to choose is a right that we all have individually. But as with any choice, there are costs, consequences and limitations. When an individual’s freedom to choose negatively impacts the freedom for others to live safely and for society to function securely, the common welfare of all must take precedent. The Supreme Court ruling on Jacobson v. Massachusetts supports this principle for vaccines.
Given all these precedents, with COVID-19 vaccines, an individual’s freedom to choose is tenuous at best and has consequences resulting in the loss of other freedoms.
Bottom line: There is no free lunch for an individual’s freedom to choose.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of Computer Science and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public health policy.