With the news this week that the Lewis County General Hospital in Lowville was going to “pause” operations of its maternity services because of the resignations of several members of that department who refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19, the not unexpected consequences of the recent New York state and federal mandates for healthcare workers suddenly hit very close to home. While it is certainly difficult to envision both the future of these workers when no other work options exist under the circumstances and the potentially disastrous impact of the mandates on a notoriously understaffed profession, one cannot help but wonder what possible reason these workers have for surrendering their professions by refusing a vaccine that has been well proven as safe and effective, and is without question saving millions of people from a devastating disease and a gruesome, untimely death.
There are undoubtedly many explanations beyond the allowed exceptions, but what one hears most is “freedom,” and that “America is a free country, and the government can’t tell me what to do.” Certainly, this seems a very odd concept when the leaders we elected are asking us to do something that would keep us and those around us alive. It is equally an extremely odd place for one to draw a line in the sand when one has casually accepted a laundry list of other impingements on individual freedoms — mandatory seatbelt use, car insurance, military conscription, land-use regulations, taxes and, of course, the longstanding requirements of other vaccinations for deadly diseases that have previously plagued humankind. The freedoms that our American ancestors enjoyed may have been frayed and faded over many years, but while such freedoms may have been enjoyed by our forebears, they were not, in fact, envisioned by our nation’s founders.
When one looks at the public and private writings of Thomas Jefferson, who above all others set forth the standards — and limitations — of the freedoms and liberties to be enjoyed by citizens of our radically unique republican government, one first needs to distinguish between the terms “Freedom” and “Liberty.” To Jefferson and other founders of the republic, freedom took the meaning of being free from something, while liberty most often meant being free to do something.
While liberty is specifically named as an inalienable right in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, he never spoke of freedom as a right. When Jefferson spoke of freedom in its larger sense, he used it only in reference to a state of being that is free from despotic oppression. He never addressed any thought of “limitations to freedom” as such because freedom was not considered as being free to do anything one wants. He considered that all laws could be viewed as restrictions on freedom and that such restrictions were and are perfectly proper in any well-regulated society. He worried that, improperly handled, freedom could be taken to extremes. As we know, even one of the most sacred freedoms, the freedom of expression, was never meant to allow screaming “fire!” in a crowded theater.
Central to Jefferson’s thinking was the belief that the exercise of one man’s freedom could not impinge upon the freedom of others who were equally endowed. Because freedom was meant to be free from something, all free peoples must be free from harm by the exercise of their neighbors’ freedom and, as such, Jefferson viewed freedom as “unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”
The writings of Jefferson certainly confirm that no rights are absolute and without restraint. No person has the right to hide behind any concept of American freedom that allows such person to do — or not do — anything that endangers the freedom of others to enjoy health and life.