Port: As important as vaccines are, we cannot abandon choice

As tempting as it is to try and force the outcome we want on the obstinate, it's dangerous to do so.

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MINOT, N.D. — A reader emailed me this week telling me he'd been spending some time thinking about the actions and statements of elected officials. Notably, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and North Dakota's leadership, including Gov. Doug Burgum and the congressional delegation.

"These elected officials espouse the benefits of, and even encourage, vaccines and then say it is up to individuals to decide and then ban or oppose mandates," my correspondent wrote to me, objecting to what he sees as hypocrisy from people who say they support the vaccine but are reticent to use the power of government to make people get it. "Clearly, this 'plan' ignores the public health issues and proven benefits of vaccines that have minuscule adverse risks.

"However, I am thinking about how, when presented with Jesus Christ, Pontius Pilate washed his hands of responsibility and left it to the mob to crucify Jesus."

This attitude in the fight over COVID-19 vaccinations, and the various vaccine policies being implemented to varying degrees by the government and the private sector, is not uncommon.

It's also worrisome.


The public knows that COVID-19 almost killed me because I wrote about my experience . Based on my doctor's advice, I got vaccinated as soon as it was available to me. All of my eligible children are vaccinated. My parents, who are also vaccinated, have spent the last two weeks quarantined in a hotel room after getting the virus.

Had they not been vaccinated, we may have lost them.


COVID-19 is serious business. The vaccines work to protect people from it. Those saying otherwise are ignorants and charlatans.

Everyone who can get vaccinated should.

But even amid that certainty, we still must respect the importance of giving people a choice.

I worry that many in our society have lost sense of the importance of buy-in.

Our system of government doesn't work without a certain level of public trust. We have a process for electing representatives and making laws and then subjecting those laws to judicial scrutiny that is both deliberative and inclusive (the latter hasn't always been true, but it is today).


That process works because, historically, we've trusted that it generally produces fair outcomes.

The problems we're facing right now stem from the erosion of that trust. Citizens, left and right, have come to think of "the system" as "rigged" and thus the outcomes it produces as inherently unfair. I don't buy into this line of thinking, but it's prevalent in these most populist times.

Now apply it to the vaccine situation. We have become a low-trust society, with many resisting persuasion when it comes to the vaccine.

Do we solve that problem with force, using the coercive power of government, in all its forms, to put needles in arms?

Signs and flags waved amidst cheers and chants, as health care workers and supporters gathered to protest vaccine mandates by the federal government and private businesses. (Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press)


In the short term, that may get us closer to the result we want, which is something approaching universal vaccination. But it further erodes trust in our institutions on a longer timeline, which portends ugly things for future initiatives.

That — and, again, I say this as someone who had a near-death experience with the virus — may be more dangerous than COVID-19 itself.

Think about it in a religious context. When the missionaries went into the world and converted people by force, how sincere were those conversions?

Forcing Americans to get the vaccine may do some short-term good in protecting our society from the virus, but at what cost? Do we want Americans to get vaccinated because they were made to or recognize the efficacy of vaccination and choose to get the shot?

As tempting as it is to try and force the outcome we want on the obstinate, it's dangerous to do so.

It's dangerous to our very way of life to abandon our duty to build consensus through persuasion.

My correspondent sees hypocrisy in those who encourage the vaccine but oppose mandates.

I do not.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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