| | | | | | | | | |

The Swiss will vote on the right to physical integrity on June 9th, 2024

The initiative and the voting recommendation made by the authorities both raise a very old philosophical question.

Source: Essentiel News, originally published on March 28th, 2024

The Swiss government recently announced that the Swiss electorate will vote on 9 June on the popular initiative “For freedom and physical integrity”, which is essentially opposed to compulsory vaccination.

Here is the text of the initiative submitted on 16 December 2021:

“Interventions in the physical or mental integrity of a person require their consent. The person concerned may not be penalised or suffer social or professional disadvantages as a result of refusing consent.”

Government and Parliament recommend its rejection

The Federal Council and Parliament recommend that the initiative be rejected. On the website of the Federal Office of Public Health, where this voting recommendation is set out, we read the following:

“Physical and mental integrity is already enshrined in the Constitution as a fundamental right. Furthermore, it is not known what the practical consequences would be if the motion were approved, particularly in terms of the work of the police and the judiciary.

The coronavirus pandemic reached Switzerland in the spring of 2020. The Federal Council took some drastic measures to protect the population from the virus and prevent the healthcare system, especially hospitals, from being unable to cope. At the same time, researchers around the world began to develop vaccines against the new virus.

It was in this social and political environment that the “For Freedom and Physical Integrity” initiative was launched in autumn 2020”.

One section is devoted to questions followed by official answers.

“Is physical and mental integrity already enshrined in the Constitution?

Physical and mental integrity are already among the fundamental rights enshrined in the Federal Constitution (art. 10, para. 2). This right protects the human body against any interference by the State. In principle, any such interference is only permitted with the consent of the person concerned.

Fundamental rights are not absolute. Under certain conditions, the State may restrict them.

Is the introduction of compulsory vaccination possible in Switzerland?

Even in the case of vaccinations, the state must respect the right to physical and mental integrity. In certain exceptional situations, the law on epidemics provides for the possibility of temporarily introducing compulsory vaccination for certain groups of people, where the population cannot be protected with less stringent measures.”

In a press release, the Conference of Cantonal Directors of Public Health supports and clarifies the position of the federal authorities, but is less cryptic. It bluntly states that the initiative “affects the State’s monopoly on legitimate force”:

“As the cantons are responsible for policing and health care, they would be the first to be affected. The initiative affects the State’s monopoly on legitimate force. This monopoly is a necessary condition for the Confederation, cantons and communes to be able to exercise their power to legislate and apply the law.”

In short, the authorities’ position is as follows: the right to personal physical integrity is already sufficiently protected in Switzerland; increasing this protection would place too many constraints on the State, whose ability to govern by force would be severely curtailed.

A philosophical question

The debate therefore touches on a key principle of political philosophy: is the right to life and physical integrity a ‘natural right’ or a ‘legal right’? In other words, is this right acquired at birth, and therefore inalienable, or is it conferred by the State itself, and therefore subordinated to some collective imperative?

The principle of natural law, in its modern conception, dates back to the Enlightenment, and the philosophers of the eighteenth century were already divided on the subject.

On the one hand, supporters of classical liberal philosophy such as Frédéric Bastiat and Thomas Jefferson postulated that the right to physical integrity is conferred by God at birth, and is therefore inalienable; in other words, slavery is absolutely immoral; this principle is therefore a natural constant, not a mere construct of the mind, and hence true across space and time. In their view, the perpetration of violence is contrary to divine law and will, regardless of human understanding.

This principle is set out in the United States Declaration of Independence, where the introduction reads:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.

The 1776 document goes on to describe these natural rights, which the State has a duty to protect. According to the authors, in no case are these rights conferred by the State itself; the State simply has a duty to be their guarantor, irrespective of any utilitarian considerations, or the constraints that this represents on its ability to rule. It is the word unalienable that is key here: it means that the rights enumerated in the document are imprescriptible and inviolable; no conditions or justifications exist to constrain them.

On the other side of the debate are philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Alexander Hamilton. According to them, the principle of natural law does not exist, and it is on the contrary the enlightened state that confers and respects fundamental rights, insofar as possible or practical.

This philosophical dichotomy later crystallised around the debate on slavery in the United States: on the one side, those who argued that abolishing slavery was an unrealistic ideal, because there was no other practical way to pick cotton; and on the other side, those who argued that abolishing slavery was a moral imperative, and was essential even if it meant that we had to do without cotton, and that society as a whole had to become poorer.

Freedom or safety?

To frame this debate in the context of the vote on 9 June, the same question, which is at least two centuries old, is being asked.

It is undeniable that if the ‘yes’ vote were to prevail on 9 June, and the will of the people were subsequently respected, in a real pandemic scenario, the State would no longer be in a position to impose any restrictions whatsoever, and its ability to contain the emergency could be compromised.

But is this argument enough for a “no” vote? Or, on the contrary, should the moral aspect prevail over and above any utilitarian considerations?

This is choice that the Swiss people will have to make in the privacy of the polling booth.

Suggest a correction

Similar Posts