The Supreme Court upheld both an individual’s right against forced vaccination and the government’s current vaccination policy to protect communitarian health on Monday but found that certain vaccine mandates imposed by state governments/Union Territories disproportionately deny unvaccinated individuals access to basic welfare measures and freedom of movement.
Such vaccine mandates wilted in the face of “growing scientific judgment” that the danger of transmission of COVID-19 infection from unvaccinated individuals was nearly equal to that from vaccinated individuals, according to a bench chaired by Justice L. Nageswara Rao.
‘Create a public virtual platform about vaccination reaction’
The court ordered the Centre to establish a virtual public platform as soon as possible to allow individuals and private doctors to report bad vaccination reactions without jeopardizing their anonymity.
“Information about adverse events is critical for raising awareness about vaccines and their efficacy, as well as contributing to pandemic-related scientific studies… “There is a pressing need for statistics on adverse incidents and broader engagement,” wrote Justice Rao, who also authored the decision.
Vaccination policy for children
In a judgment, the Bench, which also included Justice B.R. Gavai, held that India’s pediatric vaccination policy against the COVID-19 virus was consistent with “global scientific consensus” and expert bodies such as the World Health Organization, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The court stated that it did not wish to “second-guess” the expert opinions on which the government based its pediatric immunization policy.
However, the court ordered the Union government to guarantee that, if not already done, the findings and outcomes of relevant phases of clinical studies of vaccinations previously licensed by regulatory bodies for administration to children are made public as soon as possible.
The government had already revealed segregated clinical data from phase three trials, according to the court.
The government’s papers “do not warrant the notion that the emergency use authorization for Covishield and Covaxin vaccinations was provided in haste without a full evaluation of the facts,” the court ruled.
The court underlined that, subject to individual privacy protections, “all relevant data to be released under the legislative scheme must be made available to the public without undue delay” in ongoing and future proceedings.
Though the government had broad leeway in framing policies impacting public health based on expert medical opinion, the court could not be prevented from examining whether the policy was absurd, clearly arbitrary, and infringed on people’s right to life, according to the Bench.
The court established a compromise between an individual’s right to bodily integrity and refusal of treatment and the government’s public health concerns.
“In light of vaccines and other public health measures introduced to deal with the COVID-19 epidemic, we are of the opinion that bodily integrity is protected by Article 21 (right to life) of the Constitution, and no one can be forced to be vaccinated,” the Supreme Court stated.
The court acknowledged that under Article 21, a person has the right to refuse treatment.
“Personal autonomy of an individual, which is a recognized feature of protection provided by Article 21,” Justice Rao noted, “includes the freedom to decline any medical treatment in the domain of individual health.”
‘Community health’ is a term that refers to the well-being of people
When the issue became “communitarian health,” however, the government was “entitled to regulate issues.”
However, the government’s right to regulate by limiting individual rights to preserve public health was also subject to judicial review.
Courts have the ability to determine whether the government’s intrusions into an individual’s personal autonomy and freedom to access means of livelihood fulfilled the “three-fold” conditions outlined in the K.S. Puttuswamy case by the Constitution Bench (the judgment which upheld the right of privacy as a constitutional right under Article 21).
Whether the validity of the government’s restrictions on individual rights entails the existence of a law is one of the three conditions. That is, the restrictions should be backed up by a specific piece of legislation.
Second, constraints should be commensurate to a valid government goal. Finally, there should be a rational connection between the state’s goals for imposing limits and the methods used to attain them.
The court found that the present vaccination program of the Union government met the requirements and “cannot be considered to be unreasonable and clearly arbitrary.”
The policy reflected “near-unanimous expert views on the benefits of vaccination in addressing severe illness, oxygen requirements, hospital and ICU admissions, mortality rate, and preventing the emergence of novel variations,” according to the statement.
The court rejected the claim made by “some quarters” that natural immunity provided better protection against the virus, stating that “it was not pertinent for the adjudication of the question before us.”
The court, on the other hand, found that neither the Union government nor the States had produced any “material” to refute the claim made in the petition by Jacob Puliyel, a former member of the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunization, who was represented by advocate Prashant Bhushan, that a vaccinated person could spread the virus as much as an unvaccinated person.
“In light of this, the restrictions on unvaccinated individuals imposed by various vaccine mandates imposed by State governments and Union Territories cannot be deemed to be proportionate,” Justice Rao remarked.
As a result, the court “suggested” that all authorities, including private organisations and educational institutions, review their restrictions for the time being as long as the infection rate remained low or until any new development or research justified the imposition of “reasonable proportionate restrictions on unvaccinated individuals.”
“In the context of the rapidly evolving situation presented by the pandemic, our suggestion to review the vaccine mandates imposed by the States/Union Territories is related to the current situation alone and should not be construed as an interference in the executive’s lawful exercise of power to take appropriate measures against the spread of infection,” the Bench clarified.
The ruling came after Dr. Puliyel argued that certain vaccine requirements announced by states, such as those that made vaccination a requirement for receiving any benefits or services, were unlawful and violated residents’ rights.