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Sometimes 'personal choice' must give way to public good

by JIM JONES Special to the Bee
| August 24, 2021 1:00 AM

During an August 18 meeting of the Nampa City Council, a councilman voiced what has become a familiar refrain of late, saying that people should have the “personal choice” of whether to mask up or get vaccinated. Getting carried away, he compared mandatory COVID-19 protective measures to racial segregation. Disregarding this outrageous comparison, are people entitled to their own personal choice when the health or safety of others is at risk from a virus or other known threat? George Washington would likely say no.

When the ranks of his troops were being decimated by the smallpox virus in 1776, Washington ordered the mass smallpox inoculation of the Continental Army. He knew that the overall good of his troops and the success of the Revolutionary War were much more important than the objections of the Continental Congress or the wishes of individual soldiers. He was proven right and, as a consequence, we gained our independence from Great Britain.

Americans have become accustomed to having their personal choices limited in order to serve the public good. I’ve experienced it time and again during my almost eight decades. It used to be that a person could exercise their personal choice to light up a cigarette at almost any time or place. When we learned that second-hand smoke is deadly —each year, it causes about 7,330 lung cancer deaths and 33,950 deaths from heart disease — governments across the country banned it in most indoor settings. There was great outcry from smokers at first, but we now accept it as good public policy.

Some people griped to high heaven when governments first spoke of prohibiting texting while driving several years ago. When it became apparent that it kills around 35,000 people a year, texting-while-driving laws became commonplace. It is not a permissible personal choice.

Into the 1960s, police officers would often tell folks pulled over for drunken driving to go home and sleep it off. Tough laws began appearing on the books after that point, with the full support of the public. Drunk driving is no longer an acceptable personal choice. It killed 10,142 people in 2019.

Drug laws prohibit us from personally choosing to smoke or inject controlled substances. Drug abuse caused 67,367 deaths in the U.S. in 2018, with 250 occurring in Idaho. We are not allowed to make that personal choice.

Suffice it to say, there are many instances where governments of the people correctly decide that the health and safety of the public overrides the personal choice of individuals. That is a necessary ingredient of a civilized nation. It is especially so where a highly communicable disease, which is primarily spread upon the breath of human carriers, threatens infection and death to thousands of others.

The death toll from the coronavirus greatly exceeds that from each and every one of the other health hazards mentioned above. There were about 380,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. in 2020 and 265,000 so far this year. The delta variant is currently surging across the State, filling ICU beds to capacity, and jeopardizing any progress made thus far against the pandemic. Governor Little has correctly pointed out that since the first of this year, over 98% of COVID19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths have been among the unvaccinated.

We readily accept limitations on our personal choices to safeguard society from drunk drivers, drug abusers, smokers, texting drivers and the potential carriers of a variety of diseases in our public schools. Why won’t we stand for simple limitations on our personal choices, like wearing masks and getting a couple of safe and effective shots, to protect ourselves and others from hospitalization and possible death from this very infectious virus? That would be a valid, compassionate, life-saving personal choice for all of us, while also serving the public good. The Pfizer vaccine received final approval from the FDA on August 23, so get vaccinated Idaho!

Jim Jones is the former Chief Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court and former Idaho Attorney General.