Republican Representatives Phil Jensen (R-33/Rapid City) and Carl Perry (R-3/Aberdeen) would like us to fight out the vaccine wars on the 2024 ballot. They have proposed House Joint Resolution 5003, which would effectively outlaw any vaccine requirement or mask mandate.
HJR 5003 is broader than vaccines and masks. Jensen and Perry propose adding to Article 6, South Dakota’s Bill of Rights, a right to “refuse any medical procedure, treatment, injection, device, vaccine, or prophylactic.” (Of course, Jensen and Perry will not allow women to refuse to undergo childbirth.)
This new constitutional right would specify that such a refusal “may not be questioned or interfered with in any manner.” This clause would appear to prevent doctors from offering refusing patients any information that might change their minds. If a patient learns he has cancer and says immediately, “I don’t want any chemo or radiation or anything else. I just want to die,” the doctor could not say, “Are you sure about that? We have new treatments that don’t cause side effects as bad as they used to. Can I tell you about them and see if you’ll reconsider?”
HJR 5003 would prohibit any different treatment of people who refuse medical procedures: “A person’s rights under the law, including in public accommodations, may not be abridged or denied because the person exercised the right under this section.” Obviously, that means no employer could require employees to get shots for various diseases. No business could require customers to wear masks to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases. And no school could require kids to gets shots of measles before accessing their constitutional right to a free public education.
Representatives Jensen and Perry are turning freedom into pathology. As happened throughout the coronavirus pandemic, these conservatives are letting their ideology blind them to simple public health measures that make modern living sustainable. It’s one thing to exercise one’s right to decline medical treatment for a malady that afflicts oneself but poses no threat to one’s neighbors. It’s another to enshrine as a right one’s ability to ignore sensible medical advice, flaunt safe and effective preventative measures, and put friends and neighbors at risk of sickness and death. There is certainly a debate to be had about vaccine requirements, mask mandates, and other public health measures. Each disease, each pandemic, each public health threat may result in a different consensus based on different scientific facts about what balance we must strike between personal autonomy and public welfare. But that balance will not be found in the pathological absolute that Jensen and Perry prescribe in HJR 5003.
House State Affairs hears HJR 5003 tomorrow, Wednesday, January 25, at 7:45 a.m. in Capitol Room 414. If HJR 5003 survives committee scrutiny and passes both House and Senate, voters would decide its fate (and perhaps the fate of thousands of people currently alive because of sensible public health requirements) on the November 2024 general election ballot.