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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Right To My Conscience Ends Where The Other's Conscience Begins

I guess I've really had it with the various exemptions to generally-applicable laws based on religion, philosophy, or whatever.  "Conscience" is being used as a Get Out Of Jail Free card, as though the exercise of such is supposed to be consequence free:

  • I wanna be a pharmacist, but don't believe harlots should be fucking.  What, get a different profession?  Fuck you, I'm not gonna give you your legal prescription.
  • I wanna take over as many public hospitals as I can, but don't believe women have control over their own bodies.  What, don't go into the healthcare business?  Fuck you, I'm not gonna let you exercise your legal right to an abortion in my hospital.
  • I wanna have kids, but don't believe in vaccination.  What, I can't send my to kindergarten?  Fuck you, I'm not gonna be a part of your herd immunity.

The first two have of course been in the national news for a while.  The last one hit Vermont this month as our State Senate eliminated one "conscience" exemption from mandated childhood vaccinations:

Under the pending proposal, parents still would be able to claim a medical or religious exemption for one or more of the many vaccinations required as a condition for attending school or going to public day care programs.

Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, spearheaded the change, explaining that the state's immunization rate had been declining in recent years. One explanation has been the state's "leniency" in allowing parents to claim a philosophical exemption, he said.

"The preponderance of evidence shows the benefits of vaccines exceed the risks," Mullin argued. "More lives are saved when we make sure our children are vaccinated."

Mullin acknowledged that the decision might be tough for his colleagues -- balancing a public good against individual liberty and parental rights: "We are charged with making decisions that protect the public good."

Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, was one of four senators who voted against the bill. He argued people might not be religious, but still hold strong convictions that would lead them to decide against vaccinating their children. He said the bill was "taking away rights."

Rarely do I disagree with my friend, Senator Baruth, but I have to get off the bus here.  I do so partially on grounds of soon having a vulnerable infant who will be exposed to unvaccinated people while whooping cough is on the rise.  I also object on philosophical grounds to his assertion that rights are being taken away.

First, as a father I feel rather compelled to protect my children.  I wouldn't let you play Russian roulette with them, and I sure as hell am not going to support an alleged "right" to let your kids wander around the public space with the potential to infect mine.

If you want to exercise your conscience--which as far as I can tell is based on innumeracy and acceptance of anti-science myths about immunization--go for it.  But recognize there will be consequences beyond the possibility that your kids will be unprotected.

Consider that people who don't believe in state violence can become Conscientious Objectors.  But that doesn't mean they get to sit around eating bonbons while everybody else goes off to fight.  They still have to put skin in the game by serving in alternate ways (or going to jail).

War tax resisters don't just get to wave their consciences around and not pay taxes.  They either legally avoid contributing into the system (as I do) by deliberately becoming impoverished, or they engage in active civil disobedience and spend a lot of time, energy and money being hounded by the Tax Man, losing homes and other assets, and even going to jail.

Hell, Quakers have exercised their consciences for centuries, only to be executed and otherwise oppressed.  By other people exercising their consciences, of course.

I'm obviously not suggesting that conflicts of conscience must be resolved by imprisoning or killing.  The point is that there seems to be an expectation these days that people can do whatever they want because, hey, conscience!

But as John Stuart Mill observed in On Liberty:

The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

You are sovereign over your own mind and body, but when other people are involved, you have to recognize they have rights, minds and bodies as well.  

So, Fundamentalist Pharmacist, get off the high horse, don't take Plan-B yourself, but do your fucking job and dispense it to people who have the legal right to use it.  And Catholic Hospital, when you operate in the secular world you aren't forced to have an abortion, but you damned well better provide one to a woman who has a legal right to it.  And Philosophical Parent, if you want to risk your child dying from whooping cough I guess the state can't intervene, but you stay in your little Antivax Commune because your ass is fucking quarantined.


March 14, 2012 in And Fuck..., Conscience | Permalink


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so, no jail.

well that's good, if a little disappointing in a weird way.

but no.




okay, well, be well, my Quaker friend.

I think you're one of the true Christians I actually know. even if I just internet know you, that's sort of cool.

Posted by: Little Boots | Mar 14, 2012 10:59:31 PM

I'm fairly certain you're going to hell for that, my friend!

Posted by: NTodd Pritsky | Mar 15, 2012 8:32:00 AM

Pharmacists that refuse to dispense Plan B to rape victims should be charged as assessories to rape.

I'm not sure that my conscience can handle an encounter with a rapist, or accessory, without a violent reaction in defense of the rape victim. It would be tough.

Posted by: Snarki, child of Loki | Mar 15, 2012 12:49:47 PM

I keep imagining that tons of business owners are suddenly going to become Christian Scientists so they can exercise their conscience and tell the rest of us to just pray instead of forking over for insurance.
(Christian Scientists only partly deserve to be picked on for their absurd beliefs. Like Jehovah's Witnesses, they don't think the government should be telling everyone else to be like them. Only real problem comes with their kids. If adults want to sacrifice themselves on Eddy's theology, go for it.)

Posted by: histrogeek | Mar 15, 2012 1:50:32 PM

Huh. I'm torn on my reaction to the VT law change. On the one hand, "philosophical" objections to vaccination are dangerous and absurd. On the other hand, denying them while keeping religious objections sacrosanct is... dangerous and absurd. I don't think vaccine-refusal is a "right", but it's absolutely a privilege being granted to the religious while denied to the atheists.

I understand why we don't sacrifice herd immunity and child safety just because some yahoo believes that Jenny McCarthy has a direct line on Truth. I don't understand what logic can reasonably share that objection, but accept the same sacrifice because some yahoo believes that Mary Baker Eddy had a direct line on God.

Posted by: Raka | Mar 15, 2012 7:00:42 PM

Raka - I'm not torn at all: I think any non-medical conscience exemption should be eliminated. Per Scalia in Employment Division v Smith, general laws that are not promoting or restricting religious beliefs don't violate the First Amendment, so neither the State nor Feds should bow to such beliefs when it's in the interest of public good. Dump the philosophical and religious exemptions, period.

Posted by: NTodd Pritsky | Mar 15, 2012 9:40:11 PM

The problem with Scalia's argument is that there have been "general" laws passed that restrict belief (actually practice rather than belief) and were specifically designed to do so. Like using slaughterhouse restrictions against Voudoun and Santeria adherents. I've seen in Europe some people wanting to use animal cruelty laws against kosher slaughterhouses, often encouraged by anti-semites. It's easy enough for bigots to pass discriminatory laws, claim innocent intent (see voter restriction laws), then see if they can hoodwink the courts with some "compelling state interest". Not that all laws that affect religious practice can or should be made unconstitutional, just that the difference is sometimes hard to spot.
The contraception/conscience debate incidentally is not at all hard. In that case people are claiming they have a right to deny OTHER people access to a medical procedure because they find it objectionable and have some economic power to enforce their beliefs.

As far as Raka's objection, I suppose atheist anti-vaxers could be accommodated the same way atheist pacifists are. The big problems there are (1)allowing anyone to skip vaccination and (2)the accommodations for atheist pacifists are far from perfect. Members of a known pacifist religion almost automatically get an exemption, while anyone else (including atheists and pacifists whose religion does not have a blanket condemnation of violence) has hoops to jump through.

Posted by: histrogeek | Mar 16, 2012 1:33:57 PM

Well, post-Smith, you still have to demonstrate the law is general and neutral. Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah:

"the laws in question were enacted by officials who did not understand, failed to perceive, or chose to ignore the fact that their official actions violated the Nation's essential commitment to reli gious freedom. The challenged laws had an impermissible object; and in all events the principle of general appli cability was violated because the secular ends assertedin defense of the laws were pursued only with respect to conduct motivated by religious beliefs."

So I think there is a distinction still to be made, your examples notwithstanding.

Your description of non-religious exemptions is really good. My Dad had to demonstrate his commitment to non-violence to become a CO during Vietnam because he was a "convinced" Quaker, whereas I don't have those hoops to jump through as a "birthright".

Posted by: NTodd Pritsky | Mar 16, 2012 2:10:24 PM

NTodd, I agree wholeheartedly with eliminating non-medical exemptions altogether. From that sole perspective, one can look at the VT law as purely positive progress toward that goal; yay!

The problem is that by leaving religious exemptions alone while eliminating philosophical exemptions further institutionalizes the privilege gap between the religious and non-religious. It's a stupid and harmful privilege that no one should have, but removing the privilege in a piecemeal and flagrantly discriminatory manner might actually be worse than insisting on an everybody-or-nobody stance.

Posted by: Raka | Mar 16, 2012 4:14:32 PM

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