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Stepankowsky column: There’s no absolute right to control your body
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Stepankowsky column: There’s no absolute right to control your body

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Andre Stepankowsky


What was the Kelso City Council thinking? Doesn’t it have anything better to do than waste time on empty and misguided efforts?

On a 6-1 vote, the council two weeks ago passed a resolution supporting healthcare workers, teachers and others who buck state and federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

The resolution is symbolic and says people should be allowed to “decide for themselves what does or does not get injected into their or their children’s bodies.”

The resolution ignores the reality that vaccine mandates for other diseases have been on the books for years, have been upheld by the courts and have essentially eradicated many illnesses. In the interests of public health and safety, governments have long regulated what people can put into their bodies.

COVID-19 vaccines have dramatically helped reduce infections, serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths. And they are safe. Those who oppose them don’t want to listen to science and take to social media to find any excuse — they can’t find reliable evidence — to reinforce their resistance.

Instead of voting on a misguided resolution that panders to ignorance, the council should encourage all eligible people to get vaxxed. That’s the fastest route out of this pandemic.

It’s popular and glib to say that people have a right to control what goes into their own bodies: My body is my sanctuary.

I agree, to a point. However, the right to control what one does with one’s body is not absolute. Governments and authorities have imposed restrictions and mandates on humans for centuries. Examples:

  • DUI laws are an obvious one.
  • Governments regulate what kind of drugs we are allowed to ingest and prohibit us from using some of them. And they of course mandate childhood vaccinations.
  • Governments can draft our young people to fight in wars, exposing them to injury and death in the interests of national security and conquest. Through this power, political leaders have sent millions to their deaths without their consent.
  • Church authorities over the centuries regulated sex, and if you think churches lacked authority to impose their will you don’t know much history.
  • Remember that many states, including many in the South, prohibited marriage between blacks and whites.
  • And what about the continuing conservative drive to ban abortion, which is another attempt (well-intentioned as it may be) to control procreation by many of the same people now howling about vaccine mandates.

Some of these controls are, by today’s standards, thankfully considered barbaric and violations of individual liberty. Nevertheless, governments without a doubt have authority to step in when national security, public health and other legitimate and compelling public interests are involved. The issue is where to draw the line.

Mandating vaccines to protect people from a contagious illness that has killed millions worldwide clearly is a legitimate use of state power. Mandates are aimed at protecting other rights, such as those to stay healthy, fraternize freely and conduct business and commerce without dread. In this case, the common good outweighs individual rights.

As has so often occurred during the pandemic, opponents of measures to contain the virus’ spread forget that rights often conflict — and that all come with responsibilities. One of those is to be a good member of the human community. Recall how President John Kennedy, in his 1961 inaugural address, challenged every American to contribute to the public good: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

So, please, don’t wrap yourself in the flag until you do your duty to help this nation get past the pandemic. Each of us, as a citizen of this great nation, has a civic obligation to help defeat the virus. Our leaders should remind the public of that — not engage in misguided resolutions that will prolong the pandemic.

Andre Stepankowsky retired in August 2020 after a 41-year career as a reporter and city editor at The Daily News. He has won or shared in many prestigious journalism awards, including the staff’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Mount St. Helens. His column will appear on the editorial page every other Wednesday.


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