Time to Stand Up For The Morality of Vaccine Mandates


Arthur Caplan, PhD

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Tag(s): Legacy post
Topic(s): Professionalism Public Health Vaccines

Arthur Caplan, PhD

ABPD Statement in Support of COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates For All Eligible Americans

The Association of Bioethics Program Directors (ABPD) represents the leadership of nearly 100 academic bioethics programs at medical centers and universities across North America.

In the face of the ongoing worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines have been medically shown to greatly reduce rates of COVID-19 infection, transmission, severe disease, and death. With full approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of one COVID-19 vaccine and others soon to follow, the clear benefits of vaccination when compared to the overwhelming risks of COVID-19, mean getting vaccinated is a vital step toward overcoming this collective, dire threat to humankind and is a collective obligation for all of us.

Given the ability of authorized vaccines to save lives, all eligible persons should be vaccinated to protect themselves as well as other vulnerable members of society, such as young children who cannot yet be vaccinated, older adults, those at elevated risk of infection because of their work or housing situation, and those with immune compromise. Eligible persons who refuse to be vaccinated risk infecting themselves, spreading the COVID virus to others, increasing the likelihood that worse virus strains emerge, and perpetuating the need for more invasive public health strategies like lockdowns and limiting travel, which can impinge upon common welfare and liberties.

Some claim that vaccine mandates are “tyranny  that violates rights to individual liberty and autonomy. However, there is common agreement among both secular and religious ethical worldviews and traditions that preventing risk to others justifies enforcing limits to personal decision-making.

We stand with the growing number of institutions both public and private who mandate vaccination with suitably-narrow exemptions for all employees, visitors, students, and other eligible persons.

To protect the health, safety and future prosperity of humankind, mandated vaccination is now necessary. The ABPD supports the use of vaccine mandates as an essential measure against COVID-19.

30 September 2021
Supported by 2/3rds majority vote of ABPD membership


It is unusual, but not unprecedented, for the Association of Bioethics Program Directors to make a statement about a public policy question.  But, the question of vaccine mandates is so intimately tied to ethical disputes about the proper role of government and the private sector in imposing mandates that the organization felt, especially in a time of a public health emergency fueled by the Covid-19 epidemic, obligated to speak out.   

Two primary arguments drive opposition to mandates.  One is that governments ought not play a role in imposing vaccination requirements.  They ought not intrude on personal liberty. But this absolutism in the name of liberty makes little sense. Certain dire challenges to human health, flourishing and viability require collective action organized, coordinated and directed by governments.  Legislatures and courts have long given the authority to government and its agencies to follow sound scientific and medical advice to minimize the danger posed by grave public health crises.  Covid-19 with its 4.5 million deaths, untold numbers of people with disabling complications, psychosocial havoc and burdens on health systems is recognized as a very serious public health emergency.  It makes sound ethical sense to permit restrictions on both liberty and personal choice including mandating vaccination for all deemed medically eligible to combat a dangerous worldwide plague. 

The other moral objection to vaccine mandates is that they intrude on the fundamental right to bodily integrity including freedom to reject medical intervention.  It is true that the right to accept or reject medical care is a long-standing right in America and other nations.  However, this right has as the ABPD statement acknowledges limits and consequences.  One may reject vaccination but then be subjected to penalties including fines, loss of employment, loss of benefits, restrictions on travel, restrictions on accessing certain businesses and services and denial of entry to government positions.  Rejecting vaccination may also mean that masking or testing requirements must be followed to move about in society.  Individuals are free to reject safe and effective prophylactic medical care including vaccines but private and public entities are free to enact penalties in the name of protecting the public’s health including those especially vulnerable to harm from Covid-19. 

The ABPD was right to weigh in on the moral debate over vaccine mandates. I was proud to work with Nir Eyal of Rutgers to draft an initial statement and then to see that draft carefully edited and rewritten by many other members.  It was ultimately passed by a super-majority of ABPD members.  I fervently hope the position statement from an organization representing moral expertise in matters of health care ethics will counter flawed moral objections to vaccine mandates so that the threat from Covid-19 can be greatly reduced in North America and around the world. 

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