When I was a senior in college, the U.S. government tried to draft me — and thousands of other young men like me — into the armed forces. The war in Vietnam was being fought with an army of conscripts.
I was exempt from the draft as a college student, but my graduation loomed and the government had instituted a lottery system to determine who would be drafted first. Each day of the year was assigned a random number according to your birthdate; those with the lowest numbers were called first.
I had barely sat down with my buddies to watch the draft on TV when my number was called. It was 30.
That created a moral dilemma for me: Would I serve in a war I hated because it seemed unjust and pointless? The government was imposing a mandate which I needed to honor or to fight.
The situation I faced is similar to the one facing many people today who are being told that their government wants them to get vaccinated to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic. And the responses to vaccine mandates parallel those I and 171,000 conscientious objectors faced 50 years ago.
Today, the reasons given by those who won’t get vaccinated include fundamental concerns about their health, religious objections, and in-principle beliefs that vaccination is simply wrong.
In 1971, I and many others thought about ways to get exempted from the draft — some suddenly found themselves joining the Quakers and other anti-war oriented faiths, others tried to muster the courage to make a personal argument that they simply could not serve in an immoral war, still others looked for a way to be declared unfit for service.
The government was quite willing to prosecute those who resisted the mandate to serve. As a result, many who claimed conscientious objection fled to Canada or other nations willing to accept them. However, the Supreme Court ruled in landmark cases involving those seeking exemptions that sincerely held secular beliefs could constitute the basis for objection to mandatory service. That led some to try the personal belief route. The battle over objections was put in the hands of 4,000 local draft boards whose makeup varied and who were given wide authority to believe they had complete freedom in deciding such cases.
Today, millions of Americans don’t want to get vaccinated against Covid-19. Some are pointing to health reasons and, as was true in the Vietnam era — think Donald Trump and his exemption for a bone spur — and are finding doctors and nurses willing to grant them what are often dubious exemptions to mandates.
Others are suddenly claiming religious objections which, as was true for many of my unwilling draftee friends, are mainly insincere and solely concocted to evade a government mandate. Some of my contemporaries managed to persuade their draft boards of their sincere objections to service and wound up being given alternative jobs in nursing homes and homes for those in mental institutions of the time. This was akin to employers assigning vaccine objectors alternate work away from others.
What are the lessons of the last great resistance to a government mandate — one in a war against communism the other against Covid-19?
The overlap in the moral wrangling over exemptions is uncanny, particularly the dubious nature of sudden religiosity to resist a mandate. And in the widely shared belief by many who fought against the draft then and fight against vaccine mandates now, both struggles were ill-conceived.
In both eras, Americans found religion more acceptable as the basis for saying “no” than personal beliefs, although the courts tried to respect both. Organized religions played less of a role among objectors than individual claims of religious piety.
Health reasons also often required suspension of the actual facts. Fifty years ago, the rich and well connected tended to be more successful than the poor in getting medical excuses from doctors. The draft wound up excluding the rich who found doctors willing to fudge, producing a war largely fought by the poor. Today, the brunt of Covid-19 falls on the poor, some of whom resist vaccine mandates often due to misinformation or unwarranted fears.
Today we have nothing like the draft boards of yore to assess claims to be exempted from a government mandate requiring vaccination against Covid-19. That system had many problems. But it raises the question: Do we need to recreate local or state vaccine boards to consider individual requests for exemptions from vaccine mandates whatever the reason given? I think we do. Simply allowing individuals to claim whatever they wish to avoid resolving a plague or for that matter government required service in a war is not good public policy.
Oh, and by the way: After the shock of getting a low number had worn off, followed by much soul searching, I decided I had to serve my country. But at my draft physical, a friendly doctor decided to give me a health exemption. I took it. That system of exemption was not fair then and is not now.
Arthur L. Caplan is professor of bioethics and the founding head of New York University School of Medicine’s Division of Medical Ethics.
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