April 14, 2024


Science It Works

The vaccine debate isn’t about science, but about ethics

When Gov. Greg Abbott reissued an executive order prohibiting COVID-19 vaccine mandates by public entities in Texas, he made a small change that could have big implications.

The original ban on vaccine requirements and “passports” was directed at any vaccine authorized for “emergency use.” With the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine on Aug. 23, that rationale vanished and the Pfizer vaccine had the same status as other standard immunizations for diseases like measles and whooping cough.

The governor’s new prohibition simply targets the COVID vaccines, whether approved fully or on an emergency basis, and could make it harder to bring the pandemic under control. And it enshrines a serious challenge to the very possibility that we might think of ourselves as part of a society, with mutual responsibilities as well as individual rights.

It is tempting for critics of the governor to see in the executive orders a political appeal to the power of anti-vaccine sentiment and a rejection of “science.” But this is not quite right.

The anti-vaccine campaigns swirling through Facebook and YouTube and often validated by cable news rely heavily on the forms and trappings of mainstream science. The studies may be badly designed, the data points may be taken out of context, and the people who use their scientific credentials to promote those studies may be charlatans. But whether the subject is vaccine safety or the value of fad drugs like hydroxychloroquine and, more recently, ivermectin, the disinformation campaigns all claim scientific validation.

I don’t encounter many people who reject science or scientific expertise altogether. And while public health officials were encouraging vaccination, the FDA itself had officially taken the position, until full approval of the Pfizer vaccine, that it needed more information to pass a final judgment on the safety and efficacy of this particular vaccine.

With that scrupulously data-driven hesitancy by the FDA now resolved, Abbott’s order and similar gestures by politicians around the country raise not so much a scientific question as an ethical one. Can we rightly leave every decision affecting public health and welfare to individual preferences, whatever their consequences, or do we have any obligation to take steps to protect each other? And can public authorities take measures to enforce those obligations?

And in a sense, Abbott himself has already answered that question. By only stressing personal choice, whether on the subject of masks, vaccines or limiting indoor occupancy, he has consistently downplayed the notions of social responsibility or common good. The spread of the virus becomes a public, shared issue only as hospitals reach capacity, staff burn out and the governor must plead for out-of-state help.

The logic of Abbott’s new order strikes at the heart of all vaccine requirements. It’s hard to imagine how we could have stamped out polio or smallpox if the ideology of unrestricted personal preferences had been dominant when those vaccines were produced.

From a Christian perspective, or any religious perspective I’m familiar with, it should not be sufficient to assert that my choices are not constrained by their consequences for other people. Our faith is built on stories of covenants and relationships of mutual duty and care, enforced if necessary through rules and requirements.

This is a profoundly intuitive truth enshrined in secular laws and traditional morality alike. For example, it is not legal to drive drunk even though other people on the road have access to seat belts and airbags to give them some measure of protection (and even though most people driving drunk end up getting home safely on any given day).

In some parts of contemporary America, unfortunately, Christianity has become entwined with systems of misinformation and ideas about human relationships that have little to do with the ethics found in the Scriptures. Further, our estrangement from any notion of the common good is mirrored by a strident and censorious tendency that would, for example, exclude unvaccinated people from receiving critical care.

Where resources are scarce and strained, difficult choices will inevitably be made. But the desire to punish people (who may be unvaccinated for all kinds of reasons, including being targeted with malicious deceptions) is just a different version of the same problem bans like Abbott’s leave us with.

Being part of a society has to mean that we look out for each other even when we’ve been foolish or selfish or misled. Part of the point of my religion, as I understand it, is that all of us are like that sometimes and need to be cared for anyway.

It’s an unspeakable tragedy that so many people are dying every day in America, a year and a half after the pandemic began and four months after safe and effective vaccines were made available to all adults. We’ve gained powerful tools for protecting ourselves and each other. Vaccines are surely the biggest, but measures from high-quality masks to better ventilation and regular testing can all play important roles.

The challenge is that all of these tools require cooperation in bearing some measure of inconvenience or intrusion for each other’s sake. We need to refuse the false promises of culture-war politics and try harder to accept each other, bear burdens for each other, and consider our roles in serving a greater good.

A governor can’t bring about that greater good, but he can help it along. Unfortunately, he has chosen to hinder it instead.

Benjamin J. Dueholm is pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in University Park. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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