In response to the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down the federal vaccine mandate for companies with over 100 employees, Joe Biden unsurprisingly made some authoritarian comments.
Here is what Biden said:
“I am disappointed that the Supreme Court has chosen to block common-sense life-saving requirements for employees at large businesses that were grounded squarely in both science and the law. This emergency standard allowed employers to require vaccinations or to permit workers to refuse to be vaccinated, so long as they were tested once a week and wore a mask at work: a very modest burden. As a result of the Court’s decision, it is now up to States and individual employers to determine whether to make their workplaces as safe as possible for employees, and whether their businesses will be safe for consumers during this pandemic by requiring employees to take the simple and effective step of getting vaccinated. The Court has ruled that my administration cannot use the authority granted to it by Congress to require this measure, but that does not stop me from using my voice as President to advocate for employers to do the right thing to protect Americans’ health and economy. I call on business leaders to immediately join those who have already stepped up – including one third of Fortune 100 companies – and institute vaccination requirements to protect their workers, customers, and communities.”
First of all, although not the least bit surprising given that the vaccine mandate was instituted by OSHA at Biden’s urging, it’s still difficult for me to comprehend how anyone could be disappointed at a ruling protecting individual rights from an egregious violation. It’s notable that Biden made no mention of morality, individual rights, or liberty in his address. He describes vaccine mandates as “life-saving,” “common-sense,” and “grounded squarely in both science and the law.” These things might be true (although the majority of the SCOTUS justices would disagree with the “grounded in the law” part), but none of them make it okay to require people to get a vaccine as a condition of employment. Doing so violates people’s rights and is therefore morally wrong. But clearly, the rights of individuals to make their own decisions about their bodies and lives are not particularly important to Biden.
It is telling that Biden characterizes the decision of whether individual businesses are going institute vaccine mandates as a decision about making businesses safe for employees and consumers and protecting people’s health and the economy. The debate over vaccine mandates is fundamentally a question of whether or not businesses are going to violate the rights of their employees. Although health, safety, and a booming economy are all good things to have, none of these things is as important as protecting individual rights. (With regards to Biden’s point about protecting workers, customers, and communities, I believe that forcing workers to do something they do not want to do is the opposite of protecting them, as I explained in a previous blog post.) Contrary to what Biden claims, instituting vaccine mandates is not “the right thing,” but the wrong thing. Instituting vaccine mandates is not “stepping up,” as Biden characterizes it, but rather an act of aggression against employees.
Thanks to the First Amendment, Biden does have a legal right to use his voice to encourage businesses to do the wrong thing. He does have a legal right to advocate that companies violate the rights of their employees. But that does not make it morally right of him to do so.
The most disturbing part of Biden’s comments was his characterization of the vaccine-or-test requirement as a “very modest burden.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Neither shots nor Covid tests are particularly invasive medical procedures, but that does not make it okay to require them as a condition of employment. Requiring people to provide documentation that they’ve undergone a medical procedure is demeaning, degrading, and dehumanizing. It takes away privacy, it takes away liberty, and it takes away human dignity. When an employer has the power to decide what medical interventions an individual person must get, that individual person is deprived of the right to govern his/her body and his/her life. What is at issue here is not a specific vaccine, nor the act of having one’s nose swabbed. It is the concept of bodily autonomy and self-ownership. It is the fundamental right to make one’s own medical decisions, and that includes the right to decline any medical intervention. Although getting a shot or getting one’s nose swabbed may not be a big deal in itself, the loss of the freedom to independently make medical decisions is absolutely a big deal.
To be forced to submit to medical procedures in order to keep one’s job means to lose one’s dignity, one’s autonomy, and one’s ownership of one’s body. This is far from a “modest burden.”