Editor’s Note: The following is the winning essay of the 2021 American Heritage Scholarship Series Essay Competition. It was written by Oakdale High student Emma Lowe, who wrote on this year’s topic: Mandatory vaccine Mandatory.
In the 1700s, a deadly epidemic struck the United States, killing 3 in 10 infected people and leaving survivors with painful wounds and large scars. This virus was smallpox, a disease that was apparently impossible to prevent at the time; that was until a British doctor named Edward Jenner created the first vaccine in 1796 (CDC, “History of Smallpox”). Using material from the similar, but much less deadly virus, cowpox, Jenner inoculated her patients with the very first vaccine. The coup effectively immunized them against the deadly smallpox. After successful vaccination campaigns throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the World Health Assembly declared that the disease had been eradicated worldwide by December 1980 (“smallpox”). The use of vaccines has grown dramatically, with commonly used vaccines against chickenpox, influenza, measles and polio saving countless lives each year. Such childhood vaccinations are even required in most public and private schools before students can attend.
In January 2020, a new virus hit the country called COVID-19; a respiratory disease that is said to spread like wildfire across 50 states and the rest of the world, shutting down businesses and trapping millions of citizens in their homes for months. But, due to the widespread use and study of vaccines nowadays, pharmaceutical and virological research companies were able to produce a vaccine in record time, less than a year after the initial outbreak. Millions of Americans have rushed to get vaccinated to stop the spread of this virus and protect themselves. However, even now, with more than 181 million Americans fully vaccinated against COVID 19, the virus continues to spread across our country.
So what’s the problem? An anti-vaccine movement has led to the complete vaccination of only 55.2% of the nation, allowing the virus to continue to spread and mutate among the remaining 44.8% of unvaccinated Americans (Mayo Clinic, “US COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker ”). The question then becomes: does the government have the constitutional right to impose vaccines, and if it does, should it do so? Vaccine mandates can be simplified to questions of why, what and who. Or in other words: why should the COVID-19 vaccine be mandatory? In addition, what level of government should be the one issuing the mandate, federal or state? And who, if any, should benefit from the exemptions? Current science, as well as historical precedent regarding the U.S. Constitution, has shown the answers to these questions: In order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, vaccines should be mandated at the state level with few or no religious exemptions. or philosophical.
The question of why there should be a vaccine warrant in the first place can be answered by looking at the evolution of the COVID virus over the past year and a half. According to the Associated Press, unvaccinated people accounted for about 99.9% of current hospitalizations related to COVID-19 (Johnson, “Almost all COVID deaths in the United States are now among the unvaccinated”). So the need for a vaccination warrant is clear when looking at these numbers, as the virus will never be under control with so many hospitalizations. In addition to preventing hospitalizations, vaccines have been shown to be 95% effective in protecting vaccinees against the virus; as Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley Law School, said in the video conference: “If there are a hundred unvaccinated people who get COVID, five who are vaccinated would get COVID.” which means that in addition to drastically reducing the chances of contracting the virus, the COVID vaccine also makes breakthrough cases much less severe.
So if vaccines are really that effective, why are people refusing to get them? One possible explanation was the concern over the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization, rather than full approval, of the first COVID vaccines. Some people said they did not trust what they saw as a “rushed” approval process. But with the full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine issued in August 2021, there are still many laggards. It has become more evident than ever that the main reason for not getting vaccinated is not health or safety, but rather political.
Whatever the reason a person is reluctant to get vaccinated, the necessity and constitutionality of a vaccination mandate is clear. Ask the question: Should mandates be applied at the federal level, or is it better to leave it up to each state to decide? While many people have called for a federal mandate because it would provide a unified national response to the problem, the US Constitution and precedents better support state-level mandates. Obviously, the Constitution, a document created in 1776, does not explicitly mention the government’s power to impose vaccines, so instead we need to apply constitutional principles to modern problems. One part of the Constitution that points to state-level versus federal-level mandates is the Tenth Amendment, which states that “powers which are not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it. here to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people ”(Constitution of the United States, amend. ten).
Often cited in state rights arguments, this amendment gives individual states the power to make decisions on matters not specifically mentioned in the Constitution based on what is best for their residents. The argument then becomes: do vaccination mandates fall within the power of state governments, or do they infringe personal freedoms? The Supreme Court case Jacobson v. Massachusetts sets the precedent for this question, stating that “It is within the power of the police of a state to pass a law on compulsory vaccination” (1905). This integral case limits the power of the individual when his actions can have a negative effect on those around him. Essentially, this means that citizens have to sacrifice part of their individual freedom in the name of the “common good”.
Although many workplaces already require employees to be vaccinated against COVID, some companies have bypassed these requirements by allowing religious or medical exemptions. These types of exemptions existed long before the COVID-19 vaccine, however. In some states, schools allow students not to be vaccinated for different reasons: all fifty states allow medical exemptions, forty-five states allow religious exemptions, and nineteen allow philosophical or personal belief exemptions (Findlaw, ” School Vaccine Exemption Laws by State). But, key Supreme Court cases like Oregon vs. Smith cement the idea that states do not legally have to provide vaccine exemptions to their residents. The Smith case stated that a law does not violate an individual’s rights under the First Amendment, “if the law does not specifically target religious practice and is otherwise constitutional as applied to those who engage in religious practice. at the specified act for non-religious reasons ”(1990). Thus, a state government could legally issue a vaccination warrant without allowing religious or philosophical exemptions, as long as the warrant does not specifically target individuals based on their religious beliefs.
While there is great legal support for the rights of states to impose the COVID vaccine, many people still oppose the plan. Some believe that this would undermine their personal freedom and bodily autonomy. But there are already laws that effectively put public safety above the rights of individuals, including the aforementioned vaccination mandates for children in schools and seat belt laws. The requirement to wear a seat belt may seem very different from the requirement for vaccines, but there are similarities between the two. There has been a similar setback to the seat belt laws of 1986, including some of the same arguments used against COVID vaccines over personal freedom and individual rights. In the Iowa Supreme Court case State vs. HartogHartog claimed that the seat belt requirement violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to privacy and was beyond the police power of a state. But the court ruled against him, declaring the law to be constitutional (1989). This helped set a precedent declaring that public health and welfare mandates are, in fact, constitutional.
One argument against leaving the power to impose vaccines to individual states is that many would choose not to adopt vaccine requirements or that one state could create very weak rules. This is corroborated by the fact that as of September 16, 2021, only 10 states in the Union have reimposed mask warrants, even though COVID cases are back on the rise, with a current weekly average of 146,182 cases, even though wearing a mask has been proven to help prevent the spread of the virus (CDC, “Vaccinations> Variants”). However, the Constitution’s spending power clause gives the federal government the ability to promote state vaccine mandates by providing grants to states that create COVID vaccine mandates (“the federal spending power”). In this way, the federal government is playing its role in eradicating the virus by pushing for the creation of state-level mandates.
Vaccination mandates are effective in preventing disease and protecting public health. They also enjoy strong legal support in federal and state courts. In addition, the Constitution shows that these vaccines should be mandated at the state level, rather than the federal level, without religious or philosophical exemptions; mandates are supported by the Tenth Amendment as well as Supreme Court cases like Jacobson vs. Massachusetts and Smith vs. Oregon. As Thomas Jefferson once said: “In questions of power, let no longer hear of confidence in man, but bind him to evil by the chains of the constitution” (Fair Copy of the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798). Whenever there is a power conflict between the people and the government, individual opinions should not guide decisions. Instead, citizens should trust the Constitution to lead them on the path of the common good.
This story was originally published November 28, 2021 6:00 a.m.