Losing Her Religion

» January 28th, 2013

A woman who worked at a hospital in Cincinnati was fired because she refused a mandated flu vaccine on the grounds that it contains egg protein. She’s a vegan. Her legal challenge hinges on the premise that her veganism is the moral equivalent of a religion. The hospital begs to differ, arguing that veganism isn’t a religion and that, as a result, the woman’s civil rights were not being violated by the mandate. The woman has sued the hospital. The case goes to trial in July. I hope she wins. But not on the grounds she argues.

The woman is a customer service representative. She’s thus in no position to administer drugs that have been animal tested or contain animal products. Nevertheless, she is working for an organization that systematically administers drugs that have relied in one way or another on animal exploitation. In this respect she is like the bookkeeper for a slave owner while not owning slaves herself. In essence, she’s already implicated in what she wants to avoid by virtue of her employment. She is, in other words, already violating her religious belief, flu shot or no.

There is, though, the more compelling issue of bodily integrity. We have at least some rights when it comes to what we can chose to put into our own body. This—more than religion— strikes me as the crux of the case for this woman. She’s being asked to consume a product that, on the basis of human decency, she deems the essence of evil. Would the hospital require a recovering alcoholic to take a drug that had alcohol in it? I realize that alcoholism is a disease and carnism is not (yet). Still, the matter for me hinges on the basic right to choose what to put in (or keep in) one’s own body. At the least, I find it problematic that the hospital could do a drug test on this woman and fire her if they found traces of marijuana—an innocuous plant in my humble opinion—in her system while her failure to inject egg protein and human virus into her body is equally punishable. I’m no legal scholar, and never will be one. But something here is whacked up.

My takeaway point is that I hope this woman doesn’t try to get veganism classified as a religion, if for no other reason than we’ll be further doomed to cultish associations we already have to work hard enough to avoid.  There seem to be other ways to make this case. She should lose her religion but maintain her veganism as a stance that transcends religion and qualifies as basic human decency. Whether or not there is a legal basis for doing so, alas, I don’t know. But there ought to be a law.

UPDATE (January 29): Turns out the FDA just approved a new egg free flu vaccine. (Thanks to Karla Cook for the tip.)

16 Responses to Losing Her Religion

  1. Harumi says:

    I have found a very easy fix to this that would save SO much trouble if vegans (and anyone else wanting to avoid the flu shot where it’s mandatory) would follow it. When asked to receive a flu shot just declare an allergy to eggs. I am a nurse and we will not give shots to people with egg allergies and we don’t question it when people claim it.

    • John T. Maher says:

      This avoids the vegan ethical imperative to ask others to question their assumptions and beliefs about animal instrumentality. We want to deconstruct opinion not hide behind the social graces associated with lying

      • Jerry Friedman says:

        John, I’m in complete agreement. The framers of the constitution, rather the bill of rights, knew to what ends religious zealots would tear the union apart if it infringed on their religion (citing a few thousand years of human history). Hence the framers described the First Amendment as, in part, freedom of religion. However, the First Amendment taken as a whole, free speech, freedom of the press, is not simply to do those three things. The First Amendment is a cherished law that prohibits the government from meddling with our conscience. From this perspective, veganism fits snugly in the First Amendment. Call it speech, call it religion, call it conscience, call it what you will — firing someone because they act from conscience is unlawful if their conscience is Christian, etc., so should it be if their conscience is vegan.

  2. John T. Maher says:

    Friends and activist attorney colleagues from CA shared with me this order from an Ohio court in the case you must be describing. The Court refused to dismiss the wrongful termination case which was brought by a vegan on (an argument based upon an extension of) religious grounds. The relevant Code of Federal regulations (CFR) section cited by the Court states: “whether or not a practice or belief is religious is not an issue. . .the [EEOC] will define religious practices to include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of religious views.”

    Where JMC writes “I hope this woman doesn’t try to get veganism classified as a religion, if for no other reason than we’ll be further doomed to cultish associations we already have to work hard enough to avoid. There seem to be other ways to make this case. She should lose her religion but maintain her veganism as a stance that transcends religion and qualifies as basic human decency” The plaintiff here is basically trying to do exactly that by saying that her moral beliefs deserve to afforded the same legal protection as someone else’s religious beliefs.

    So, like it or not, veganism is already the equivalent of a religion and must be so from a (crazy) jurisprudential point of view in order to be taken seriously . Every society it seems, places a premium of rights and protections upon institutionalized neurosis, in this case religion in America. Anyone who wants a copy of the decision on the motion to dismiss in this case should contact me off-list.

    SAKILE S. CHENZIRA, : NO. 1:11-CV-00917
    :
    Plaintiff, :
    :
    v. : OPINION AND ORDER
    :
    CINCINNATI CHILDREN’S :
    HOSPITAL MEDICAL CENTER

  3. James says:

    I was hoping you’d have something to add here, John. Thanks.
    jm

  4. carolyn z says:

    This is a unique subject because it is a case in which one’s bodily integrity can impact the bodily integrity of another– a question which, itself, is at the root of all social struggle, especially veganism. Do we have the “right” to impact others’ bodies unnecessarily? I’m not saying I have an answer… at all. But I find the issue of ethics and vaccines fascinating. A person in the health care industry (anyone who interacts with patients, not just nurses or doctors) can pass along the flu to patients who might be very vulnerable. I’ve had to deal with this question myself because I work in health care/social work with a very medically vulnerable population (and though I do direct care, the administrative assistant is just as able to pass along the flu to our patients, too). The point is, if I got the flu and accidentally passed it along to one of my clients, who are at high risk of dying from it, I just don’t know what I’d do with myself. Health care facilities, let us remember, are not just pawns of the animal-testing-animal-destroying industries… they are facilities filled with amazing people who spend their whole lives saving lives. I’m not sure the “veganness” of not getting the flu shot outweighs the massive harm that could be caused by my potentially not getting the flu shot. I did not end up getting the shot, but it was only after a lot of very serious cost-benefit analysis and asking myself some really hard questions about what action would minimize suffering…. and at the end of the day, all of my clients ended up getting the shot, so I was let off the moral hook, in a sense.

    I’m not saying I know what the answer to this quandary is, but it is a very, very complicated issue in terms of how to minimize suffering, and where to draw the line between moral and physical realms of well-being, especially in places (like hospitals) where our bodies–at their most vulnerable– are so intricately interacting with one another.

    • michael says:

      We should be asking if the flu vaccine (of which few included strains are “predicted” by virologists the season prior) are actually effective at preventing the flu. When I was confronting this issue, I simpy looked at the flu vaccine package insert which stated that there was no clinical evidence adequately demonstrating that the vaccine would prevent anyone from catching the flu.
      In a radio interview, Dr Tom Jefferson of the prestigious Cochrane Collaboration based out of Rome recently said that in 2009 he conducted a thorough review of 217 published studies on the flu vaccine and found only 5% to be reliable! We should be asking if the flu vaccine (of which few included strains are “predicted” by virologists the season prior) are actually effective at preventing the flu. When I was confronting this issue, I looked at the flu vaccine package insert which stated that there was no clinical evidence adequately demonstrating that the vaccine would prevent anyone from catching the flu.
      In a radio interview, Dr Tom Jefferson of the prestigious Cochrane Collaboration based out of Rome said that in 2009 he conducted a thorough review of 217 published studies on the flu vaccine and found only 5% to be reliable! Others experts have also expressed their doubts about the flu vaccine. http://prn.fm/2013/01/18/gary-null-flu-vaccine/
      We should also be asking if there are other more effective ways of preventing the flu and to prevent spreading it (there are – sanitation, hygeine, and protective gear).
      Aside from these questions, the focus on vaccinating healthcare workers to prevent infecting patients is somewhat of a red herring when healthcare associated infections of other types are as prevalent as they are. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/967022-overview#5

  5. Russell says:

    With regard to the bookkeeper who works for a slave owner, what about the university employee who, perhaps, works in HR (or even teaches History)? These individuals do not work in animal experimentation but are employed by an institution which engages in such work? Are they “guilty” by association?

    • James says:

      Oooooooh. Very clever by half, or half of a half. You see, this university employee (a history professor!) isn’t suing his employer.

  6. Russell says:

    The comment really wasn’t meant to be pointed at you:-) It is a very personal quandary. My partner works for an organization I despise. I love her and she loves her work (HR) but the organization does animal experimentation (as do universities).

    I appreciate your work.

  7. Sandra says:

    So many layers of irony here. That a person should be forced to accept a vaccination into her body to allegedly protect herself and the people around her from flu, when so many variations of these diseases (including antibiotic resistant superbugs) originate from animal agriculture in the first place. How selective we are about our problem solving strategies. How willfully we ignore the elephant in the room. If we’re really all about protecting the vulnerable from disease we’d shut down animal agriculture and not be trying to ‘solve’ the problem with objectionable, dicey half-measures of injecting people with vaccinations containing animal-based components.

  8. I’ve struggled with many of these ethical dilemmas. I’ve worked in a University Hospital, and I’ve taken the required vaccines. Here is how I dealt with the issue, and how I approach life as a vegan in general.

    The definition of vegan, includes practicality. We have to admit, that animal exploitation and products are so foundational, that it is impossible in modern society to avoid using or participating in animal exploitation everywhere. The homes we live in, the autos and bikes we drive or ride/ transportation we use, buildings we work in, shop in, go to etc. have been built with adhesives, solvents, paints and a myriad of other products that have been tested on animals to provide Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs).

    We shop at grocery stores that serve animal products etc. So, the point is, where one works, really isn’t the issue, it is what I consider a tertiary concern, unless it is literally working at a slaughter house, a fur farm, a pet store a circus, the zoo, the rodeo, or other direct form of animal exploitation.

    I worked for an electronic lab notebook software development company. There was no animal exploitation going on under that roof, yet I was very uncomfortable with my project management work, because their product often supported clients like BP or university vivisection programs where I would literally be sitting in development meetings as they talked about the lab animal identification, cages and even LD 50 termination codes they would need built into the application. I’m sure I could feel guilty about doing project management work for a telecom company too because I’m sure that they likely supported communications for the department of defense, vivisection labs and factory farms.

    So seriously, this is not what being vegan is about. We have to recognize the term practicality in the definition more often. So, in the flu vaccine case above, I would say that it is vegan to take the injection, regardless if there is egg in the injection, because there isn’t a practical non-egg containing (AKA vegan) option, and this is a mandatory thing for employment. If she needs that job to pay the bills, then so be it.

    Lets say it has nothing to do with a job, lets say it is a lifesaving injection for rabies after being bitten by a rabid animal. Are we going to whip out our vegan card and choose to die over getting a lifesaving vaccine? Seriously? Again, that is not what being vegan is about. I believe the tertiary processes will evaporate when we have dealt with the insanity of animals as property. Once they no longer have them available, they will develop better solutions to all the insidious tertiary ways animal products pervade our society.

    And on the note of vegan compared to religion, I don’t like that either, and I believe our term is actually defined as a “creed” when we make the legal case.

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