Covid-19 Vaccination Dilemma — Government Mandate vs. Effort to Educate and Persuade

A sensationalist, sanctimonious and shaming narrative driven by social media and soundbites will not increase vaccinations

I am pro Covid-19 vaccine. I believe in the safety of the Covid vaccines and have taken the Pfizer vaccine, as has every member of my family. I strongly encourage people to get the various available vaccines to reduce the health dangers of this unprecedented viral pandemic. Science does not always work perfectly, but I do trust the Covid vaccine scientific process as a Republican state senator and co-ranking leader of the Public Health Committee.

Effective persuasion is especially important on the heels of the latest governmental dictum to require Covid vaccinations. Gov. Lamont has mandated Covid vaccines for state employees and all schoolteachers and staff, public and private. President Biden has mandated vaccines for 100-plus million Americans — private-sector employees as well as healthcare workers and federal contractors. Tensions and tempers are on the rise as we acclimate to a second year of the seemingly perpetual state of emergency and threats of Covid variants that have most of our communities on edge.

I see the current process/attempts at persuading people to get the Covid vaccine similarly follow the three key rhetorical elements of persuasion put forth by Aristotle – logos, pathos and ethos. First, social media, news and government platforms focus on data (logos), such as the stark disparities in serious illness between the vaccinated and the not. Then it turns into emotional pleas (pathos), with personal stories of lost patients or loved ones. Followed by authority figures reinforcing a moral duty of getting a vaccine and imposing government mandates (ethos).

But when the desired response doesn’t materialize – when a substantial portion of the country still refuses an easily accessible Covid vaccine shot – the calls devolve into histrionic, condescending and shaming debates. Many people, unsure and uncertain about vaccines, respond by digging in their heels when confronted and portrayed as anti-vaxxers, public health menace and fringe extremists. Plenty of research shows that once people make a decision and attach a strong moral identity to it, they ignore contrary and factual data.

These policies seem to violate the 14th amendment of due process rights in the U.S. Constitution. However, legal precedents such as Jacobson v. Massachusetts have validated vaccine mandates based on the police powers delegated to the states under the 10th Amendment. The Jacobson ruling gives the state nearly unchecked power to decide how to handle a public health emergency. But that decision and interpretation of law, which was written in 1905, is jarring and contrary today because of the pro-choice/body rights revolution in 20th-century American law. In cases decided after Jacobson, the U.S. Supreme Court has maintained that the Constitution — particularly the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment — limits the power of the state to touch the body. These cases concerning “bodily integrity” apply to every level of government, and they have also shaped public norms about individuals’ right to make crucial decisions about their own bodies.

Here are just a few of the landmark SCOTUS rulings that have established a constitutional right to “bodily integrity” – maintaining control over our bodies in recent decades. You are allowed to buy and use contraceptives – Griswold v. Connecticut (1965).  You are allowed to marry anyone regardless of race – Loving v. Virginia (1967). You are allowed to abort a fetus in the first trimester – Roe v. Wade (1973). You may not be subjected to experimental drugs or therapies without your consent, even if you are in the military – United States v. Stanley (1987). Though the SCOTUS has not used the phrase “my body, my choice,” many rulings in federal cases have used language that seems applicable to the question of vaccine mandates. “The forcible injection of medication into a nonconsenting person’s body represents a substantial interference with that person’s liberty” Washington v. Harper (1990). “The right to be free of unwanted physical invasions has been recognized as an integral part of the individual’s constitutional freedoms” United States v. Charters (4th Circuit, 1987).  How would you feel if the government applied this “police power/authority” tactic overriding “bodily integrity,” to something you strongly disagreed with?

Government imposed mandates despite the legal and public health policy justifications are one way but not the most lasting and effective way to increase Covid vaccination rates and to significantly reduce the risk of dangerous infection spread currently and into the future. The best way to change minds is to talk to people with differing perspectives and treat them with an open mind based on respect and dignity. I understand a lot of my legislative colleagues, business and healthcare leaders are frustrated and tired as are our constituents, but a sensationalist, sanctimonious and shaming narrative driven by social media will not help to find compromises and solutions.

All of us have a challenging obligation to work to understand where people are coming from, build relationships, address fears with facts, and gently correct information with benchmark medical data.

Using this approach and sincere engagement in personal conversations, reduced barriers to vaccine appointments/access, forming a partnership with a local medical center, making sure people are comfortable with the decision, and praising them for making a “sacrifice” and “taking on risk” for their own and loved ones well being and their community. Most important, when an “undecided” is in a “wait-and-see” mode, we must acknowledge their perception of risk, do not pressure or demean them, and offer reassurance and data as more people they know become vaccinated. The results of increased vaccination will speak for themselves.


Senator Tony Hwang is the co-ranking member of the Public Health Committee and the co-chair of the bipartisan Bioscience Technology caucus in the Connecticut General Assembly