We have been in the midst of one of the most ambitious vaccine distributions the world has ever experienced, and it has finally brought us within sight of the end of the Covid-19 pandemic. And yet, despite the end being within reach, it seems to constantly allude our grasp. Infection rates are skyrocketing, mask mandates are once again being considered, and normalcy is being tossed to the wind. The problem is that reaching the end depends almost entirely on the amount of people willing to get the vaccine. As such, several private companies have presented employees with an ultimatum: either employees get the vaccine or face termination. Microsoft, United Airlines, and Google are just a few of the many companies who have boarded this growing trend.
At first glance, it seems inherently wrong for our employers to dictate what we can and cannot do with our bodies. But this raises an important question: where do the rights to our bodies end and our duty to the common good begin? Surprisingly, this would not be the first time the United States has grappled with this question and experienced the conflict between the rights to our own bodies and our duty to others. This article will examine this struggle and the history underlying vaccination mandates.
Our tale begins with one man: a pastor by the name of Henning Jacobson. Jacobson was a prominent figure in Cambridge, Massachusetts during the early twentieth century. He was an outspoken community organizer and founded the Swedish Lutheran Church. During Jacobson’s time, the United States was experiencing a smallpox epidemic. Smallpox is a particularly nasty disease that causes severe fever and oozing sores to cover one’s face and body. This disease would go on to kill over 300 million people. In order to combat this epidemic, the city of Cambridge made smallpox vaccinations mandatory. Officials would go door-to-door demanding that citizens be vaccinated lest they be levied a fine. The city official tasked with enforcing this order eventually arrived at the door of Henning Jacobson. Jacobson, however, refused.
Jacobson refused because he thought it was his right to refuse. Why should the government decide what he does with his own body? Eventually, Jacobson did what any other person striving for change inevitably must do: he filed a lawsuit. Jacobson v. Massachusetts was the first case where the Supreme Court addressed the issue of sovereignty over one’s body within a medical context. The question was whether Jacobson could be fined by the state for refusing the vaccination.
In a 7-2 decision, under an opinion authored by Justice John Marshall Harlan, the Court ruled that Jacobson must pay the fine. The Court reasoned that the vaccine mandate was a legitimate exercise of the state’s police power. The rationale was that if a state may raise a militia of civilians to prevent a military invasion and therefore compel citizens to take up arms, then it may demand individuals to receive a vaccine to combat a deadly disease. To the Court, this was simply a different form of invasion. Personal liberty ended up taking a backseat to public safety.
Jacobson v. Massachusetts was a delphic case that paved the way for governments to require vaccinations in schools. It also demonstrated the importance of sacrificing one’s personal liberty for the common good. The result of this sacrifice was that smallpox became the first human disease to be completely eradicated due to a vaccine. This was due, in no small part, to the populace’s willingness to receive the vaccine. And if it could be done once, it can certainly be done again.
There is a certain, understandable fear to receiving the Covid-19 vaccine. Like Jacobson, some individuals feel that it is an infringement of their personal liberty to be ordered to inject something into their body and fear what the vaccine may do to them as well. These individuals do not want to be forced to put a part of the virus into their bodies. Thus, like Jacobson, they refuse to accept the vaccine out of fear for their autonomy and wellbeing. It is worth noting, however, that to truly conquer one’s fears, one should not run away from them. The solution is often to go to the root of the fear itself and face up to it. Sometimes, all it takes to overcome the poison is a small sip.