War COs served their country. Vaccine COs should too.

Conscientious objectors have two obligations: demonstrate their sincerity, and make a contribution to society

During the Second World War, about 11,000 Canadian men were conscientious objectors — they refused to participate in fighting during that war.

About 5,000 were Mennonites, with others coming from the United Church, Quakers, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other church groups, all refusing to join to take up arms for reasons of religious conscience.

In lieu of serving their country through the military, the government of Canada agreed to let them do alternative service. This found the men working on farms, logging camps, national parks and in hospitals, among other things.

The service was viewed by the government and the conscientious objectors as a way for them to contribute positively to the well-being of Canada, without violating their consciences.

(In the United States, 12,000 COs did alternative service; 25,000 accepted noncombatant military service.)  

Today, there are no shooting wars involving Canada that require men and women to register as conscientious objectors. But there is another great battle going on against COVID-19. But some Canadians don’t want to join this current fight by getting a vaccination, saying it goes against their religious beliefs or consciences.

If that’s the case, should they — like those men in the 1940s — be required to perform some form of alternate service to make up for their unwillingness to be part of this great war against the virus?

That’s the question raised by Steven Clarke, Alberto Guibilini and Mary Jean Walker in the journal Bioethics.

In their article, written in 2017, before the pandemic, the authors suggest conscientious objection to military service can provide lessons today for those who refuse life-saving vaccines for reasons of conscience.

“Conscientious objectors to vaccination should make an appropriate contribution to society in lieu of being vaccinated,” they argue, noting the idea of accommodating those who, for conscience’ sake, oppose military service has been well thought through over the decades by lawyers, human rights activists, politicians and religious leaders.

“The contribution to be made will depend on the severity of the relevant disease(s), on its morbidity, and also on the likelihood that vaccine refusal will lead to harm,” the authors says.

Among the ways they suggest people opposed to vaccines can make it up to society include higher taxes, financial penalties, being denied access to certain financial or other benefits, or being required to perform community service.

They could also be forbidden from traveling, in order to prevent them from spreading the disease to other places.

In this way, they could avoid violating their consciences by not getting the vaccine but “contribute to society’s upkeep in other ways.”

When deciding what form of compensation is fair, the authors suggest basing it, in part, on the severity of the contagious disease.

And if a disease is so terrible and contagious that it threatens large numbers of people, the authors suggest the form of compensation or service in lieu of getting vaccinated be made so high that taking the shot is preferable to the alternative.

Such a system would provide a way to ensure a balance is reached between protecting society and allowing individuals to follow their consciences.

It would also separate out those who are basing their objection on misinformation or conspiracy theories, or for other poorly informed reasons, from those who object from truly and deeply held personal convictions.

No “free riders,” as they put it.

“Conscientious objectors have two obligations when their objection prevents them from discharging a duty to contribute to the public good,” the authors say. “These are an obligation to demonstrate the sincerity of their objection, and an obligation to make a commensurate contribution to society.”

By taking upon themselves a willingness to accept financial penalties or requirements to do public service, they will be demonstrating their sincerity, thus meeting both the obligation to follow their conscience and contribute to society, the authors say.

When they wrote their article, back in 2017, the authors didn’t know COVID-19 was coming. But now it seems prescient, what with the severity of the virus and the number of people who object to getting a vaccination for various reasons, including religion and conscience.

While it would be preferable for these people to get vaccinated, requiring them to contribute to society in some other way could be a way — however imperfect — to compensate for the danger they pose to others.

And if the cost of that contribution was made high enough, it might even cause some to roll up their sleeves for the public good.

Of course, the two situations — the men who refused to go to war and those who refuse to roll up their sleeves to get vaccinated — are not analogous, something the authors recognize.

But maybe there is still a seed of an idea there. Perhaps it’s an option to have those who cite religion, conscience or other beliefs for opposing vaccinations doing some form of alternative service, or contributing to society in other ways, as Canada engages COVID-19.  

After all, nothing else seems to be working — no amount of argument, logic, encouragement, invitation or incentive seems to be making a difference for those who are most adamantly opposed to getting the shot.

Maybe the idea of alternative service might do the trick. Or at least it could provide something positive to society at a time when so many others are willing to do their duty by getting the vaccine.

From the Sept. 4 Winnipeg Free Press. John Longhurst is an Anabaptist World correspondent from Winnipeg, Man.

John Longhurst

John Longhurst was formerly Communications Manager at MDS Canada.

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