March 6, 2023
Is it “inconsistent” to oppose vaccine mandates but support bans on puberty blockers for minors? According to the talking heads on CNN and political pundits on the Left it is. There is a lot of nuance to consider with these policies, but when we drill down to basic principle and consider the primary purposes of our government, we find both positions rooted in the same foundations. A recent segment on the show CNN Tonight provides an example that exposes the fallacious thinking that has led us away from wise, principled, Constitutional government, towards a more direct “ends justified the means” trivial style of governance.
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee recently signed a bill to establish prohibitions in the state related to the performance on minors (person under the age of 18) of certain medical procedures related to gender identity. This includes bans on “treating purported discomfort or distress from a discordance between the minor’s sex and asserted identity” via methods such a “surgical procedures and the prescribing, administering, or dispensing of a drug or device that enables a minor to identify with, or live as, a purported identity inconsistent with the immutable characteristics of the reproductive system that define the minor as male or female, as determined by anatomy and genetics existing at the time of birth (the minor’s “sex”).” In other words, altering or hindering a minor’s natural physical development in an attempt to match their physical state with their current desired mental “gender identity.”
In November 2021, Governor Lee signed legislation outlawing vaccine mandates for government entities and schools while also setting restrictions for businesses regarding what procedures they may seek to limit service to vaccinated customers. Under the law, Tennessee business are not allowed to check vaccination status before customers enter their premises, for example.
Some media pundits and political commentators see an inherent hypocrisy regarding these two acts. As they see it, how can one oppose using government to force a vaccine, but support using government to ban puberty blockers for minors? Such a sentiment was highlighted on a recent segment of the show CNN Tonight, which included guests discussing the recent Tennessee bill to ban the gender identity interventions. On the show, Molly Jong-Fast from Vanity Fair states, “I also wonder, like, what happened to the Republican Party of smaller government? Right? Like, you know, I was hearing that governor (Governor Lee) say we’re not going to tell you to vaccinate your kids, but we are going to tell you that you can’t – you know, you can’t get them therapy – you know, this.” the show’s host Alysin Camerota quickly agrees adding, “Yeah. No, it is, I mean, it’s, the inconsistency is laid bare right there.”
Republicans are not anti-government anarchists
There are many problems with the reasoning of the panel members in the quote mentioned above. The first problem is the assumption that maximizing freedom and minimizing government at all costs in all circumstances is a valuable goal and one that the Republican Party always seeks to achieve. This is a false notion based on an intellectually dishonest stereotype. It is also impractical; serious people do not ascribe to such absolutism, including “small government” Republicans (read Constitutional Republicans). Our Founders debated long and hard the shortcomings and dangers of both too powerful a government and one that is too weak. The genius of the constitutional system they devised was meant to limit the dangers of both while maximizing their benefits. But principle is one thing, putting it into practice is another. For Americans in general, but especially Republicans, it is true that a good guide for moral practical action in public affairs is to seek policy that limits government intervention and promotes more freedom for individuals, but it must also ensure fundamental rights are secured from infringement. This is the primary function of a just and legitimate government and the size and scope of it must reflect this task. Securing these rights in the least-coercive way necessitates a balance between freedom and authority. The key to establishing a proper balance is to base one’s criteria for judgment on objective principles (not selfish ends) and support only so much government intervention as is logically necessary – at the proper level (federal, state, local) – to secure fundamental rights from infringement, keep order, establish justice, and maintain the structures necessary to continue this pursuit.
Any government coercion to force a behavior (or prohibit one) must be consistent with these points and not contradict them. This demands scrutiny of a given proposal to weigh the different interests and make a proper judgment one way or another. Choosing a biased starting point, (favoring either total freedom or the opposite approach of using strict force upon individuals) and seeking to skew policy in either direction no matter what the costs, is not warranted. It seems lost on these commenters that the opposite position (that most of them likely support) would commit the same error – government assumed to be empowered to force vaccines but somehow cannot be empowered to ban puberty blockers – would be equally “inconsistent.” Focusing on an “inconsistency” is not proper in itself however because the comparison is logically problematic.
Act in accord with nature and the fundamental inalienable human rights objectively derived from our nature as rational beings
The second problem with the panel members’ reasoning is that there is no consideration for an objectively-derived baseline. This makes their comparison invalid. Forcing or “nudging” compliance with a medical intervention like a vaccine mandate under threat of punishment is contrary to the natural state of an individual and their fundamental inalienable right to bodily/integrity autonomy. Consent must be given by the individual to initiate a medical intervention and coercion against such informed consent is inherently immoral. There is a difference regarding puberty blockers, surgeries, and other medical procedures intending to affirm one’s “gender identity. These are elective acts contrary to one’s natural state. They are willful, direct acts to alter an individual’s natural physical disposition. Policy allowing for, or encouraging, these procedures are the direct opposite of policy such as an anti-vaccine mandate law that seeks to protect one’s natural state and freedom of choice from unjust coercion.
A position that government ought to both protect individuals from vaccine mandates and prohibit puberty blockers/”gender affirming” surgeries for minors is consistent regarding the maintenance of a “first, do no harm” natural disposition of individuals, which is in itself consistent with the primary duty of government. Both policies are attempting to secure natural right and well-being from outside interference, albeit in different ways. Of course, at this point we must consider the free will and bodily autonomy rights of the individual to choose to “change” their gender and undergo these medical procedures as they see fit. After all, they do not directly risk harm to anyone other than the individual, right? And it is not always the government’s business to prohibit the behavior of rational individuals just because some other segment of the community deems it undesirable or dangerous, right? This is true, but it must also be recognized there is an important distinction between adults and minors to consider as well, bringing us to the next point.
Distinction between adults and minors
The third problem with the argument that Governor Lee’s positions are “inconsistent” is that vaccine mandates impact all citizens, and all normal activity within society related to our laws regarding civil rights and public accomodation, whereas the bans on puberty blockers/”gender affirming” surgeries are for minors only. Logic dictates, and our long history affirms, there is a distinction between laws/rules/procedures/expectations for minors, and that of adults. Minors are recognized as not being completely at the age of reason, therefore their parents, society, and the state, treat them differently than adults who have equal station and equal say in public decision-making and more freedom of choice to give informed consent towards important personal matters. Minors need more protecting and therefore more state intervention is warranted to prohibit certain behaviors regarding their care and upbringing. Now, one may recognize this point but also make an argument that decisions regarding the care and health of minors ought to be left to the parents/guardians of the minors in question, not the state, including for the administration of “gender affirming care.” There is certainly a good argument to be made for this point, as we also have a long history of recognizing the supremacy of parental rights in most important matters (with some logical consideration for the duty of states to protect the fundamental rights and well being of children in certain circumstances too). But for our purposes here, it is sufficient to point out that there is no “inconsistency” between supporting the freedom of choice for all regarding the decision whether or not to take a vaccine, and supporting bans on potentially irreversible and harmful medical interventions for minors only. After all, adults that may seek hormone alterations or gender-related surgeries are not impacted by the bill in question.
The middle ground between freedom to choose and government duty to protect
In accordance with our Founding principles, fundamental inalienable rights are supreme and government policy must conform with these rights, not directly contradict them to achieve some end. Such a contradiction in pursuit of a favored health policy is what vaccine mandates are intended to do and it is a primary reason why they are wrong. The argument that unvaccinated people pose some supposed risk to others, therefore justifying a mandate to protect the public health, or the health of the individual, commits a whole host of fallacies in itself, including taking root in what I call “Butterfly Effect Morality.” But for our purposes here we must recognize the supposed risk is indirect, there is no direct willful act to do harm when one refuses to consent to vaccination. The act of remaining unvaccinated is the natural default; there are other ways to mitigate risk of disease and vaccination poses it’s own set of risks in itself. Protecting the rights of citizens regarding public accomodation and free movement in society regardless of medical decision-making is of interest to a state.
The questionable validity and worth of “gender affirming care” is not as relevant to this discussion as is its position as an act contrary to natural physical development. Unlike the vaccine situation, the act of administering the “gender affirming care” is itself the risky action contrary to the natural default. It also requires the assistance of third parties to administer. This places it at least somewhat within the regulatory realm. Given its potential for harm, a state has some duty to set policy regarding its implementation in order to protect the long-term interests of the impacted children. If a state chooses to implement such an age-dependent ban, when the child reaches the age of consent (adulthood) they can then choose whether or not to undergo such medical procedures. Banning them outright for all ages would be a different argument on this point. In general, a state has an interest in protecting minors from long-term physical harm from outside influences that hinder or alter natural physical development.
As we see with so many other controversial issues, there is a middle ground to be found here between maintaining rights/fundamental principles and achieving practical solutions to challenges and competing interests. The debate over business owners complying with public accomodation anti-discrimination laws vs maintaining their freedom of association/expression/religion is another example. the logical middle ground is found not by focusing on politics, opinions, or desired ends, but on the maxim of the acts themselves. Doing this shows there is no contradiction between using government coercion to secure fundamental rights of individuals from infringement when there is a direct threat to rights present, and allowing individuals to act in accord with their rights and freedoms when there is no direct risk of the violation of the rights of others posed by the behavior.
Seeking an all-powerful government that imposes its will on everyone is undesirable, as is a weak, unprincipled government that allows powerful factions and criminal elements within society to do the same. We ought to seek to restore Constitutional, limited government based on rational natural law principles – powerful enough to maintain order and protect fundamental rights, limited in scope within a Federalist structure allowing for responsible liberty and maximum local control over everything which does not present a danger to fundamental rights or cause disorder.