Recent weeks have seen a troubling move by Australian Christian intellectuals to downplay the role of conscience in resisting vaccine mandates. The aim of this has been to narrow as much as possible the “approved” grounds for declining vaccination against Covid, and thereby manoeuvre as many people as possible towards receiving the vaccine.
In this article, I want to challenge the assault on conscience. But additionally, I will show that a narrow focus on conscience improperly dismisses other crucial human rights issues that are brought to bear when governments and other entities compel reluctant people to have a vaccine.
Authentic vs inauthentic conscience issues?
The downplaying of conscience is well exemplified in an article written by eminent Christian legal scholar Patrick Parkinson and published in Eternity News on September 8. In this article, Professor Parkinson responds to the Ezekiel Declaration as well as a communique from the Australian Catholic Medical Association.
Parkinson raises the question of what is a “genuinely held” conscientious objection, and he argues that an objection based on the safety of a vaccine is not an objection “on moral or conscientious grounds”. It seems that the only “valid” conscientious objection Parkinson will allow is one that concerns the creation of certain vaccines from the products of abortion.
(It should be noticed that Parkinson claimed that “No-one has been compelled to be vaccinated in Australia, and no-one will be.” In light of the announcement by the Victorian Government that virtually all workers must be vaccinated in order to retain their employment—including “faith leaders” conducting “ceremonies” at “places of worship”—it would seem that Parkinson’s optimism was premature.)
Contradicting arguments such as Parkinson’s, Shona Archer has correctly explained in an Australian Presbyterian piece that conscience is engaged when a person perceives a threat to themselves from receiving a vaccine. Knowingly putting oneself at risk (irrespective of the rightness or rationality of such a concern) is a moral issue in the same way that suicide and self-harm are moral issues, and it is, therefore, a conscience issue.
Moreover, it is not only a question of putting oneself at risk. A person who wishes to avoid risk is usually motivated not simply by self-interest, but by considerations of the effects on family and friends if he or she were to suffer a serious injury or death. A young mother justifiably avoids risk in order to preserve her ability to keep caring for her children. This is a moral decision, and therefore a decision that engages the conscience.
Wider moral considerations
There are often other moral considerations involved in declining a vaccine, particularly where vaccination is being compelled by way of employer or government mandates and other heavy-handed methods. The final section of this article lists some of these.
Refusal to have a vaccine may be motivated by a principled decision to resist therapeutic coercion and compulsion, the segregation of society based on vaccine status, and the dangerous growth of State and employer power. It may be motivated by a desire to stand against a consequentialist “ends justifies the means” ethic which permits the evil of coercion to achieve the good of reducing disease burden. These are all moral matters, and therefore matters of conscience.
Perhaps most significantly, many Christians have come to regard recent events surrounding the Covid pandemic, and most particularly the widespread coercion of vaccination, as an assault on the Kingship and Lordship of Jesus Christ. This has occurred as worldly authorities have encroached in alarming ways upon spheres of human existence which are rightly ruled by God alone. One of these spheres is that of personal medical choices. Accordingly, as the leadership of Apologia Church in Arizona have done, it is right to assert that the decision whether or not to submit to a State or employer imposed vaccine mandate is a matter of religious conscience.
A hierarchy of conscience issues
Having said all of the above, I want to acknowledge that there is a hierarchy of conscience issues. Most important are those issues where there is clear teaching from Scripture on what is right and wrong. We must defend conscience most vigorously when it is being assaulted in relation to matters where Scripture has clearly laid out moral truth—for example, that humanity is created in two genders.
Nevertheless, lesser issues of conscience are not to be dismissed as inauthentic and unworthy of protection. This includes matters of personal opinion, such as vaccination. We do well to observe that the apostle Paul rigorously upheld conscience in relation to “disputable matters” such as diet and days of worship (Romans 14:1ff.), insisting that any violation of conscience amounts to sin (Romans 14:23).
In summary, any issue which an individual regards as having a moral dimension is an issue of conscience, and must be defended as such. The desire by some Christians to narrow down what are counted as “real” conscience issues must be opposed, especially at a time when secularism is aggressively curtailing the ability of religious people to live out their moral convictions.
But what about where a person makes a choice that is not based on morality, whether objective or subjective morality? Is it okay then to coerce their will?
When coercing people to make decisions, we must be very careful that we do not trample on other human rights. Freedom of religion and freedom of conscience are not the only relevant human rights.
A great many people are reluctant to have a Covid vaccine because they are not convinced that it is safe to do so. They understand that the vaccine was developed with unprecedented haste, that it is based on a technology never before used in human vaccines, and that there are significant albeit rare adverse effects that may occur. People are concerned that there may be as yet unknown, longer-term adverse consequences of having a Covid vaccine, especially when it now seems likely that we will be expected to have these vaccines on a regular basis to maintain a “fully vaccinated” status.
When somebody, on the basis of these pragmatic and medical concerns, does not freely consent to vaccination, any measure which pressures them to vaccinate themselves robs them of their agency. The right to “prior, free and informed consent” to medical treatment (and the corresponding right to refuse treatment) is an internationally recognised human right. Human beings must be afforded the dignity of saying “no” to a therapeutic invasion of their bodies—even one which is likely to benefit them.
Going a step further: something that “pro-vaccine” people do not seem to realise is that giving consent to an injection with a perceived risky substance is not merely a matter of intellectual decision. For some, it is a matter of overcoming fear and revulsion. Perhaps the only way for a “pro-vaccine” person to “step inside the shoes” of an extremely vaccine-hesitant person might be to imagine yourself making an appointment to be injected with a small amount of bleach and to imagine the heart-palpitating anxiety that this would cause.
Note: it does not matter if the fear and revulsion are rational or not. These emotions are real, and they are terrifying, even when they are not rationally based.
Let us think this through with the use of some other analogies.
Would it be right to threaten an arachnophobic person with loss of their employment unless they hold a live huntsman in their hands for 60 seconds?
Would it be right to threaten a claustrophobic person with loss of their employment unless they sit inside a sealed, dark but well oxygenated 2 x 2 x 2-metre box for two hours?
Would it be right to threaten someone who is very fearful of the sight of blood with loss of their employment unless they watch an hour-long video recording of open-heart surgery?
Would it be right to threaten a vegan with loss of their employment unless they consume a well-cooked steak while you watch?
Would it be right to threaten an average urban Australian with loss of their employment unless they eat a meal of dog meat?
None of these scenarios involves pressuring people to do something that they consider morally wrong, actually life-threatening, or against their religion. None of these scenarios involves pressuring people to do something that other people (or even most other people) would not be able to cope with. And all of these scenarios involve a kind of fear, revulsion or taboo that is not entirely rational or “scientific”.
But we all know that it just isn’t appropriate to say to somebody: “Get over it. The spider can’t actually hurt you.” Or: “Just be rational. You aren’t going to be harmed by eating the dog meat just this once.” We know that inflicting this kind of psychological torment on somebody is cruel, that it violates them, and that it is inconsistent with the Christian ethic of love as expressed in the golden rule (Matthew 7:12).
The same therefore should apply when people have a deep fear or revulsion at the thought of having a particular vaccine. But instead, we have many people continuing to insist that very vaccine-hesitant people should just “get over it”, and get vaccinated so they can keep their jobs and regain their freedoms from the government.
This is a real human rights issue. Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a human rights treaty signed by 173 nations (including Australia), states that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Just as subjecting a vegan to a meal of steak would in some cases amount to psychological torture, and certainly “cruel treatment”, subjecting somebody to a medication that they perceive to be taboo or potentially toxic, and from which they viscerally recoil, can amount to psychological torture and “cruel treatment”. When this occurs, we have undoubtedly violated their human rights.
Given that Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms the right of people to work, vaccine mandates which are linked to employment are especially egregious because they put some people in the position of choosing between one human right (the ability to work) and another (the right to not be subjected to cruel treatment and/or torture).
For many people, especially people of faith, there are weighty moral reasons for choosing not to receive this vaccine at this time. Where moral reasons exist, even where the reasoning is contentious (cf. Romans 14), these are matters of conscience and the right to decline vaccination without suffering penalties should therefore be fiercely defended by Christians.
Even where a person’s reasons for declining vaccination are not moral, there are other important human rights issues at play. There is the right to freely consent to (and freely refuse) medical treatment. And in some cases where there is very real fear or revulsion at the prospect of receiving what an individual perceives to be an unsafe or taboo medication, there is the right to not be subjected to cruel treatment and psychological torture.
Christians ought not to minimise the seriousness of these matters by narrowing down what are considered “authentic” conscience issues and narrowing the “God-approved” reasons for declining a Covid vaccine. We must strongly oppose the campaign being waged by some evangelical intellectuals to de-legitimise the concerns and emotions that lie behind Covid vaccine hesitancy and thereby void the church’s responsibility to speak up about significant human rights violations.
 If one spends enough time listening to what is said in traditional “anti-vax” circles, there is no question that individuals within this subculture view vaccines as taboo the same way a Jewish person would view pork, or an average Australian would view dog meat. In 2021, we have an additional phenomenon where the novel vaccines based on mRNA and DNA appear to be viewed as taboo not only by traditional “anti-vaxxers” but also by a broader range of people who do not view older vaccines in this way. It may be compared to the feelings of some people towards GM foods. Viewing something as taboo is more than viewing it as risky or toxic; taboo is associated with intense sensations of disgust and violation. Overcoming taboo is therefore not a simple matter of persuasion and reassurance, and compelling people to ingest (or inject) a taboo substance is unquestionably a form of torture.