Rules Are for Schmucks: Vaccination Tango

Photo by pyotr / 123RF

Previously we looked at some unintended consequences of laws designed to promote religion in the workplace. This week considers a particularly problematic example of this situation.

Various laws in various circumstances require people to be vaccinated against particular diseases. Children must receive a number of vaccinations to attend school. And healthcare workers who deal with vulnerable patients need to have a full set of vaccinations as well. Unfortunately, these laws are riddled with religious exceptions: if God says you don’t need the vaccination, you’re off the hook.

I can understand, on one level, the libertarian argument against having any vaccination requirements at all—nanny state, freedom of choice, etc. If it weren’t for the fact that having unprotected people wandering around puts my own health at risk, I could understand it even more. What I can’t understand is that if there is a real need for everyone in a certain category, such as healthcare workers, to reduce their risk of disease for the benefit of their clients, why should unverifiable claims about the desires of the spirit in the sky get in the way of that?

A case in New Jersey carries the exemption argument to its logical extreme. June Valent was a nurse at the Hackettstown Community Hospital when the company issued a policy requiring employees to get a flu vaccination. The rule allowed workers to claim an exemption on religious grounds, provided they submitted a note from a religious leader.

Valent refused the vaccine. But she did not present a note from a God expert, and was later fired. She didn’t have such a note because her grounds aren’t religious—she just thinks she knows more about flu and flu shots than the rest of the medical profession, and she doesn’t want the shot.

Arguing for herself before a New Jersey appeals court, Valent said it wasn’t fair that religious people had more rights than she did; besides, the company’s interest in flu vaccination couldn’t be all that strong if it allowed believers to avoid the shot so easily. When the court ruled in Valent’s favor, it agreed: “The religion-based exemption irrefutably illustrates that the flu vaccination policy is not based exclusively on public health concerns.”

One of the few recollections I have of kindergarten is the day a nurse showed up to give us all some sort of shot. I don’t remember what the shot was for, but I do distinctly remember Mrs. Kelleher saying at one point that you don’t absolutely have to have this shot if you don’t want it. My five-year-old self weighed the pros and cons carefully and concluded that no, I would prefer not to endure the excruciating pain of someone stabbing a piece of metal into my arm, thank you very much.

It turned out that I was the only student who had made what I thought was the rather obvious choice. This made me somewhat uncomfortable, especially when I noticed the juice that the shot-takers were all getting to relieve their agony. Not nearly as uncomfortable as I became forty-five minutes later, though, when my mother showed up—from work—wanting to know what exactly was going on. I started to explain to her the purportedly voluntary nature of the proceedings and the logical path of my reasoning, but the expression on her face quickly changed my tune. I survived the procedure. Had they simply ordered me at the outset to stand in line and get my shot, I would have done so without difficulty.

So now New Jersey has come full circle, to attain my kindergarten level of sophistication. First, a vaccination requirement for healthcare workers; then, a camel’s-nose-under-the-tent exception for God experts; and, finally, a “fairness” adjustment for everyone else, turning a requirement into a farce. Those of us who don’t like the prospect of catching the flu from people who are supposed to be taking care of us are out of luck. [Note: the flu vaccine isn’t perfect. All it does is reduce your chances of illness, not eliminate them. But the more people who get the vaccine, the less the bug will spread.]

A recent NPR story notes that the United States is now experiencing its greatest measles outbreak in decades, centered largely in the Amish community of Ohio—a community whose members have been informed by God of the wickedness of modern science, including vaccination, and whose children are not sent to schools where measles vaccination might be required.

When an effective smallpox vaccine was perfected in the last century, a tremendous effort was launched to vaccinate the entire population of the world, exterminating the smallpox virus (which only lives in humans) once and for all. Guess who the last holdouts were? Some Hindus in India, whose local God experts told them that humans shouldn’t be interfering with punishments sent from the gods. Guess what the Indian government did? It forcibly vaccinated every last one of them, finally extinguishing the greatest health scourge humankind has ever known. Today, with politicians bending over backwards to make every exception they can think of to curry favor with organized religion, I doubt that the same common-sense view would prevail. If only the world had a no-nonsense mother to give it “the look” and set it back on the straight and narrow path.