The study focused on data from Cologne’s Public Health Department, spanning just over seven months, and looked at rates of infection among close contacts of those vaccinated (called “breakthrough infections”) and of those unvaccinated. The authors conclude that “the number of transmissions from unvaccinated controls was three times higher than from fully vaccinated patients”.
What follows from this evidence? Should vaccines be mandated?
Prof David Albert Jones has argued that mandating vaccines for the purposes of their effect on disease transmission is similar to mandating live organ donation
Vaccines are a form of medicine, taken into your body. The principal reason for administering them is the health benefit to the recipient. Typically they have a range of side effects, and it is an important ethical principle that those presenting for vaccination provide informed consent.
There has been controversy in the UK over compulsory Covid-19 vaccinations for healthcare workers. Other countries and jurisdictions have implemented similar mandates, and the issue has returned once again with the identification of the Omicron variant. Boris Johnson has mentioned the need for a “national conversation”, but whether that actually means talk of mandatory vaccinations remains to be seen. But these mandates are principally premised on the effect vaccines have for transmission rates or on the healthcare system. With increasing evidence that vaccines do cut down spreading, it is likely that support for mandates will increase.
Prof David Albert Jones, Director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, has argued that mandating vaccines for the purposes of their effect on disease transmission is similar to mandating live organ donation. It is having something done to your body for the good of others (giving an organ) but without consent (it is compulsory).
It should be obvious that live organ donation requires consent. No-one has the right to forcibly take someone’s organs because it benefits another. To do so would treat the ‘donor’ as a harvesting site rather than as a human being with his or her own bodily integrity. Mandated live organ donation is clearly wrong. But this is quite different to dissuading people from being donors. The Church encourages organ donation as an act of self-gift. This is a general principle, however, and therefore does not apply in every circumstance. There are any number of reasons why someone cannot or might choose not to donate an organ. It doesn’t necessarily mean they lack charity.
In a similar way, vaccination could be encouraged. But all people are different; and there are many reasons why some cannot or choose not to receive a vaccine.
A morally responsible community ought to offer as much information as possible, both generally and to specific individuals, on the personal and social benefits of vaccination. This must be done without coercion or mandate.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 118 makes it clear that “every sin against the physical integrity of the individual” is considered a “social sin”. If we apply this to vaccine mandates, we may say that it is “a direct assault on one’s neighbour” because it is the community unjustly instrumentalising the bodies of individuals in that community. This does not contradict the commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18), because refusal of vaccination does not necessarily result from a refusal to act charitably. There are many reasons why someone cannot receive the vaccine, or why they might consider it unwise given their personal circumstances.
Pope Francis and other bishops have encouraged vaccination for what they believe would be good for the person vaccinated and the good of the most vulnerable. An individual might see this as a moral duty to protect themselves from severe or fatal infection. And additionally, they may see the beneficial effect of vaccination on transmission rates and conclude they have a moral duty to receive it in accord with love of neighbour. But in both instances, it is not for the state or any professional body to coerce people into receiving the vaccine (e.g., denying access to goods and services, or employment), still less to impose it via a mandate. One cannot coerce or force someone into self-gift or, indeed, a self-sacrifice.
A morally responsible community ought to offer as much information as possible, both generally and to specific individuals, on the personal and social benefits of vaccination. This must be done without coercion or mandate. To do otherwise is to introduce a new, dehumanising relationship between the community and the individual – even if the motive is for the good of others.
Dr Christopher M. Wojtulewicz is the Education and Research Officer at the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford.
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