A friend who is vaccinated asked how unvaccinated people could justify their right to move about freely when doing so takes away his right to do the same. He believes that vaccine passports are a good solution to the problem of balancing the right to bodily autonomy, which he supports, in theory, with the right of others to work, learn and socialize without fear of infection. He argued that just like the unvaccinated want the right to live in society normally, so too does he want the right to avoid situations with unvaccinated people, whom he believes increase his risk. His phrasing obscures exactly what it is that he is claiming a right to, but a little thought indicates that he is claiming a right to safety. Further, he sees the right to be free from risk of infection as equivalent or greater than the right to be free.
I think the idea that everyone has a “right to be safe” is a common and very destructive confusion that is growing in our culture. We seem to be coming to a place societally that values safety over life well-lived, and certainly over freedom. When safety is valued so highly, nearly anything can be justified with an appeal to it. If we want to thrive as human beings, we have to keep safety in its place – in a long continuum between due diligence and recklessness, not at the apex of a decision tree for “right action.”
My husband and I went out to dinner with an old friend last Friday. We talked about the scandal embroiling the place we met and formed our friendship, a summer camp for kids in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Several women alleged last year that when they were campers, they had experienced unwanted sexual contact with other campers. The organization running the camp launched an independent investigation and issued findings, but victims filed a multi-million dollar suit against them. To make a long story short, the camp is no more. Our friend told us that in speaking to people who supported the aggressive nature of the suit, she found that they felt that closing the camp for good was the only way to ensure that no child would ever be assaulted there again. She sympathized with that idea, asking whether, she, if a director, could ever feel comfortable taking responsibility for children if she weren’t 100% certain that she could guarantee their safety to their parents. We talked about prudent actions a camp should take to keep kids safe, but in the end agreed that it would never be possible to ensure kids were spared from sexual assault at that camp or any other.
We were three people of many who loved this camp, and found it formative. It operated for over 40 years in a gorgeous valley with wildflower meadows, camp fire rings, a huge garden, forest, a pond. It is the reason I not only love nature the way I do, but also feel deeply at home outside. I met my husband and many lifelong friends in that valley. It made my siblings and I much closer. It’s where I learned how to be myself. I am a different person in many positive ways because of that camp and I know it’s the same for others. How do you weigh gifts such as these with the harm others experienced?
People supporting the suit against the camp clearly feel that the need to keep kids safe outweighs the potential harm done by closing the camp. I disagree. Kids going to a summer camp are not guaranteed safety there anymore than they are guaranteed it in life – not even from sexual assault. The fact that kids can and do die at summer camps is not a reason not to send your kids to one, even though your child, too, could die. Your child, my child, could die at nearly any moment. We can’t change this ultimate fact and striving too much to do so costs too much. Keeping kids safe has to be balanced with giving them the freedom to explore, meet and connect with others, learn, and be physically active. To do otherwise is to condemn kids to half a life at best.
So no, I don’t think my vaccinated friend, or anyone else, has a right to be safe from infection now or ever. Trillions of viruses floating everywhere cannot be controlled. In contrast, we have much more control over our own defenses, whether through a healthy immune system or vaccination, than we do over what we are exposed to. Some may feel that preventing unvaccinated people from accessing everyday places like schools and offices is simply prudent precaution, the same way that proper supervision is at a summer camp. This argument simplifies to the belief, though, that some peoples’ right to feel safe trumps others’ right to bodily autonomy. Do people really believe this? If they do, perhaps they are not considering the degree to which the perception of safety (an inherently vague concept) can be manipulated, nor the degree of harm done by segregating people based on the pharmaceutical products they are, or are not, willing to use.
I think it’s clearly the other way around – society has a much stronger obligation to safeguard our right to bodily autonomy than to keep us safe. Keeping people safe from contagious infection is not actually within society’s power, any more than it is possible for summer camps to guarantee safety. The best we can hope for is to reduce risk, at the unacceptable cost, in the case of the covid pandemic, of creating a new group of second-class citizens. The “right” to safety, also, should be conceived of as subsumed by the right to bodily autonomy because bodily autonomy is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for safety and not the other way around. You may or may not be “safe” when you have an intact right to make your own medical decisions. However, you will never be safe if you can be forced to alter your body at authority’s behest, on pain of exclusion from normal society.
Addendum: Connection requires freedom