Julie Ponesse offers an excellent response to various governments and private agencies that demand COVID vaccines in her slim volume, My Choice: The Ethical Case Against COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates. She is a former professor of ethics and ancient philosophy who became an internet sensation when she lost her job at Western University in Ontario, CA, for refusing the jab. The central point of her argument against mandatory vaccinations is that such a policy denies the right of self-determination (“personal autonomy”) that belongs to each human being.
Other than Robert Malone, M.D., few commentators on vaccine policies have cited either the Nuremberg Code or the Belmont Report, both of which categorically oppose the use of governmental force to compel participation in medical experiments, while insisting that all participants must fully informed as to the risks that they face before consent is given. Ponesse uses her rich understanding of the Belmont principles, and the philosophy behind them, to build her case against mandatory COVID vaccines. Given that the experimental nature of these medicines prevents us from knowing anything of substance about the long-terms risks of these vaccines, she then rhetorically asks: “Can it ever be ethical to mandate that to which a person cannot, in principle, give consent?”
Professor Ponesse begins her book by reflecting on her life and the difference that she discovered between teaching ethical principles and living them out in the face of adversity. Her sincerity and scholarship are clearly on display as she recounts her failed attempts to negotiate with her college’s administration (who has ever succeeded at this?), and her subsequent struggle to comprehend the public backlash against her principled stand. She comes across as strong in her stance, gentle in her writing, but steadfast in her refusal to deny the venom directed at her by former friends and colleagues.
Chapter 4: Is the Pandemic Response Ethical is the center point of her book. She reviews and then dismisses arguments based on prior pandemics, insisting that analogies to prior events must be closely reasoned, rather than sloppily applied in an effort at persuasion. She also offers some historical examples where individuals suffered because drugs were deployed before adequate regulatory procedures were followed.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that the mRNA vaccines offered by Pfizer and Moderna offer some protection against infection for a limited time frame only. Ponesse confronts this critical aspect of the covid vaccines by drawing a careful distinction between “sterilizing” vaccines, which reduce the risk of infection to a tiny amount, and “leaky” vaccines, which are much less effective at reducing the risk of infection or transmission (which is one reason why fully-vaccinated and boosted politicians and celebrities are in the news for getting COVID-19). What is the purpose of mandating a leaky vaccine whose effectiveness diminishes after mere months when treatment options are readily available?
Would Ponesse’s argument be helped or harmed by considering an example where the argument for a mandate is stronger and clearer? Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is a dangerous disease but infants cannot be currently vaccinated against the disease. Their protection depends on society immunizing the children around them with a medicine that effectively blocks transmission. But these compelling circumstances are reversed for COVD-19 vaccines; older, vulnerable members of society can be immunized with the mRNA vaccines, yet the vaccines are “leaky” and thereby fail to prevent transmission to the vulnerable.
The final portion of Ponesse’s book is a reflection on the importance placed on personal autonomy in western societies after the European enlightenment, which concludes with her exhortation for her readers to stand up for themselves in the final chapter, Do Not Go Gently. She appeals to philosophers, such as John Stuart Mills, to argue that it is our right to both offer what she calls “questionable speech,” as well as to hear it.
The only discernible flaw in the book, albeit a minor one, is Ponesse’s analogy with the over-used cliche that Galileo and Copernicus were persecuted for religious heresy. Many historians, such as John Hedley Brooke, believe that the problems between these individuals and the Church were due to matters of church politics as well as questions of astronomy.
The strength of Ponesse’s book is its singular focus on respecting personal autonomy as an ethical principle. It makes an excellent resource for personal or congregational reflection on the ethics of vaccine mandates. It is available from the Canadian charity The Democracy Fund for $12.99 US or $14.99 CA.