Blindsight is 2020, by Gabrielle Bauer, an Excerpt on "Ethical Warriors"
Guest author Gabrielle Bauer's new book offers perspectives on Covid policies from dissident scientists, philosophers, artists, and more. Here we present an introduction by the author and an excerpt.
Friends, I am delighted to publish this introduction and excerpt from Gabrielle Bauer’s superb new book, Blindsight is 2020: Reflections on Covid Policies from Dissident Scientists, Philosophers, Artists, and More (Brownstone Institute, 2023), now available in paperback and e-book. Enjoy! —Aaron Kheriaty
Introduction by the author
Why would a 66-year-old woman object so strenuously to policies designed to keep her safe? My book Blindsight is 2020, just published by the Brownstone Institute, takes on the question. The book grew out of my deep concerns about the pandemic lockdowns, mandates, and what I call Covid culture. I’m honored to share a few details about the book and to have an excerpt published in this newsletter.
Remember the early days, when everyone was telling us to follow the science? Like many others, I had a problem with this slogan. From the day the lockdowns were announced, I wondered: Why are only scientists being consulted? Where are the mental health experts to tell us how social isolation will affect our most vulnerable, both young and old? Where are the economists to insist on a cost-benefit analysis? Where are the ethicists to weigh in on the appropriate balance between risk avoidance and personal autonomy?
These perspectives, so often missing in the Covid discourse, carry no less weight than the epidemiologic one. A young human-rights lawyer has important insights to impart about a pandemic, as does an aging bioethicist. Or an author of ground-breaking fiction. That’s why the 46 dissenting thinkers showcased in the book include not just scientists and doctors, but philosophers, ethicists, economists, politicians, lawyers, writers, musicians, as well as a comedian and a priest.
As a health and medical writer who works with doctors most days of the week, I have a deep respect for science. But science alone cannot dictate pandemic policy. Managing a pandemic is not just about containing a virus, but about shepherding the human family through a massive societal upheaval. An upheaval that threatens not just lives, but livelihoods. Not just lung health, but mental health. Not just heartbeats, but hopes and dreams. It’s about striking a balance between collective action and individual agency. Pandemic policies are not sustainable unless they respect human nature and human needs—a point made by several people featured in the book.
One of those people is Aaron Kheriaty. Together with his colleague Julie Ponesse, Aaron stars in Chapter 12 of the book, called “Ethical Warriors.” These two ethical trailblazers argue eloquently and passionately for a world that respects both science and the human rights that underpin the free world.
As an essayist and memoirist, I also enjoy weaving some storytelling into the mix. From my attendance at a freedom rally and therapy with a Zoom shrink to a trip to Sweden and an LSD trip on a lake, I recount several personal experiences that sprang from my despair about the Covid policies. I hope the book speaks to some of you.
BLINDSIGHT IS 2020 is available on Amazon as a printed edition or in e-reader format.
Excerpt, Chapter 12
Ethical Warriors: Julie Ponesse and Aaron Kheriaty
Two academics, both living the quiet life: one in Eastern Canada, the other in Southern California. Both fulfilled in their careers, loved by their students, respected by their peers. Never imagining it would all come crashing down in 2021.
That was the year the institutions that employed them gave them an ultimatum: get vaxxed or get out.
Julie Ponesse, who lectured about classical philosophy and medical ethics at the University of Western Ontario (UWO), and Aaron Kheriaty, who taught psychiatry and directed the medical ethics program at the University of California Irvine (UCI), drew the same line in the sand, a line that cost them their careers.
They both refused the Covid vaccine, arguing that their immunity from prior infection with the virus should exempt them from the requirement. Ponesse wrote an explanatory note to her university and Kheriaty sued his institution. They both got fired.
What troubled the pair was not so much the products themselves as the discourse that grew around them—the overblown claims, the suppression of data and debate, the intense social pressure accompanying the vaccination campaign. Safe and effective, safe and effective, do it for your neighbor, do it for your immunocompromised uncle, do it or else.
Most governments started gently: Will you please, pretty-please get vaxxed? When vaccine uptake plateaued, they piled on the incentives, from Krispy Kreme doughnuts to crisp $100 bills.1 Free eggs in China, hummus in Israel, blenders in India. Then came the warnings: get the vax or pay a fine, get the vax or lose your job. And finally, the full weight of social opprobrium. Do it or you’re a bad person. Do it or you’re a science-denying troglodyte. Do it or you deserve to die. The venom and the vitriol, the runaway train of coercion—Ponesse and Kheriaty wanted no part of it.
The particular hill they chose to die on, mandating vaccination in people with prior immunity from Covid, rested on the following train of thought: We’ve had Covid. We have antibodies that protect us from serious disease, just as vaccinated people do. If we get vaccinated, we bear the risks without the commensurate benefits. Ergo, we shouldn’t be forced to do it.
In support of their position, Jeffrey Klausner, a clinical professor of population and public health sciences at the University of Southern California, co-authored an analysis showing that infection with Covid generally confers protection for 10 months or more.2 Ten months isn’t forever, but then neither is the protection offered by vaccines. “From the public health perspective, denying jobs and access and travel to people who have recovered from infection doesn’t make sense,” Klausner maintained. Others countered that vaccination offers extra protection even to those who have had Covid and that we can’t go looking for antibodies in everyone who claims prior infection, making vaccine mandates the only practical solution.
For the record, the battle that cost Ponesse and Kheriaty their jobs is not my personal battle. I felt no pride when I got the shots (and cringed at the displays of jabbed arms on Facebook) but no pressure, either. The vax passes did disturb me: the show-your-papers vibe, the clannishness, as though we had paid our way into a secret club for the virtuous. I had no interest in belonging to a virtue club, and whipping out my vax papers at a pub left a bad taste in my mouth. (If I had to do it over again, I would skip those beers.) Even so, my discomfort with the mandates didn’t rise to the level of outrage. My deeper misgivings bubbled up later, after I came to understand how vaccine absolutism grew out of Covid absolutism and an unhealthy tree cannot grow healthy branches.
A little digression: about 15 years ago, I got a three-month gig writing materials for an adolescent program run by Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Everyone hired by the hospital, whether full-time or on contract, had to get a slew of vaccines as well as a police check. Even though I would be working in an off-site building that did not admit any children—basically a Dilbert-style office with industrial carpeting and a sea of cubicles—policy was policy, so I had to get the shots. I grumbled about it, more at the inanity of the rule than the inoculations, but didn’t think to fight the requirement. As for the police check, by the time the results came back (not a criminal, yay!) I had already wrapped up the gig. Ah, bureaucracy.
All of which is to say: I have no personal skin in the Ponesse & Kheriaty fight. But some of my friends and colleagues do—people who chose not to get vaxxed and lost their jobs, university placements, friends, and social standing along the way. People who had ethical concerns about mandating a product we still knew very little about. People who opposed the vaccine mandates for the same reason they opposed lockdowns: it was all too hasty and heavy-handed.
I’ve given Ponesse and Kheriaty a chapter of their own so they can speak for the millions of people who’ve traveled this path. Also, theirs is a story about exploring complex issues, about taking a stand, about speaking out amid intense pressure to shut up, which is more or less the point of this book.
Although they both lost the battle with their respective employers, they continue to fight the war: bringing the ethical issues surrounding vaccine mandates to a wide audience and restoring respectful debate to science and ethics. Ponesse even wrote a book about it, My Choice, published by The Democracy Fund in 2021.3
The book lays out all her arguments against the vax mandates, starting with the premise that vaccines that don’t stop transmission “must be seen more as a treatment and less as a public health measure. And if the vaccines are not about public health, then what justifies the mandates?”
While “a person’s autonomy is typically regarded as the highest priority” in Western bioethics, Ponesse allows that public safety imperatives may override this principle in some crises. But the precedent everyone loves to cite, the smallpox vaccine mandate, doesn’t apply to Covid because “the viruses and vaccines are vastly different in kind.” Not only does smallpox pose a much graver danger, but the vaccine stops transmission in its tracks. Also pertinent is the level of coercion used to enforce a mandate. In some US jurisdictions, refusal to comply with the smallpox vaccine mandate carried a penalty of $5 (about $150 in today’s dollars)—hardly the same coercive force as losing your livelihood.4
Invoking the principle of “disproportionate harms,” Ponesse argues that young people face a disproportionate risk from the vaccines, for the simple reason that they have more years ahead in which adverse events can develop. She also notes how risk tolerance varies widely among individuals. “Some will opt to take a chance and others will not,” and a rule that “forces us all to behave in the same way…is an affront to personal autonomy.”
When UWO first announced its mandate policy, Ponesse responded with a long email outlining these arguments, supported with 24 references. She got no response from the university, not even a “we value your input” blandishment. Not a word from her colleagues, either. UWO further tightened the screws, removing the option of twice-weekly Covid tests in lieu of vaccination, and Ponesse confirmed she would not comply with the mandate. After teaching at the university for two decades, she was let go. “I was a professor of ethics, questioning what I view as an unethical demand,” she says. “You don’t have to look hard to see the irony.”
After leaving UWO, Ponesse joined the Democracy Fund, a Canadian charity devoted to advancing civil liberties, where she holds the position of Ethics Scholar. In a November 2021 video presentation for the Fund,5which garnered more than 160,000 views, Ponesse addresses the titular question: “Why are so many people choosing life in a cage?” She has no answers, just more questions: How can you rally a people to stand up for their rights when they don’t think their rights are slipping away? Have we decided that a life of comfort, security and conformity—if that is even possible—is worth the price of freedom? What if you’re blind to the cage that has been erected around you? What if you helped to build it?
On the last day of March 2022, I went to see Ponesse chat with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (beamed in from his home in Los Angeles) about Covid policies and democratic values. The event took place in a high school auditorium in a small city near Toronto, with about 500 people in attendance. Ponesse spoke with a natural fluency, words tumbling over words like polished stones, and commanded the stage with her proud bearing and stylish garb. It was hard to see her as the type of person who makes enemies.
In the mix-and-mingle portion of the event, people formed a long queue to get signed copies of Ponesse’s book. I grabbed two copies, one for me and one for a friend and fellow writer I would be meeting the next day. I hadn’t talked to her in many months, but had heard she had refused the vaccine, so I thought she would appreciate the book.
I met my friend at the Leslie Spit, a long and skinny peninsula that juts out into Lake Ontario. With the wind whipping at our hair and faces, I gave her a hug. She burst into tears.
We started walking, the churn of the waves muffling her sobs. “I’m so relieved,” she said finally. “I kept thinking you wouldn’t want to hang out with me, and certainly not to hug me. Being unvaxxed and all. I worried you would want to go for coffee and I would have to say no, because I don’t have a vax pass. I spent all last night worrying about it. I hardly slept at all.” She took a breath. “And you know what’s really nuts? I even worried that you were playing an April Fool’s joke on me and wouldn’t show up. That’s how crazy the vax wars have made me.”
This is why we need people like Ponesse, I thought as we continued to walk. The vaccine policies had sliced through the social fabric, leaving blood and guts in their wake. People were calling off longstanding friendships and calling each other unprintable names. Any putative benefits from the mandates paled in comparison to this social carnage. We needed the Ponesses of the world to tell us: stop this train and do it now.
I thought of what my brother, a cardiologist, often told me: “One thing I’ve learned is that not all patients will do what I ask them to do, and I’ve come to accept that. If I keep pushing beyond a certain point, I’m just shooting myself and my patients in the foot.”
The perfect is the enemy of the good. Governments took a wrong turn when they decided that everyone needed to do their bidding. As most pandemic strategists understood before Covid, coercion does more harm than a virus. Besides, a product that delivers on its promise should sell itself without force, especially if it costs nothing. That’s just market economics.
Aaron Kheriaty began throwing his ethics at the real world long before Covid. His 2015 letter to the American Medical Association (AMA) urged the group to maintain its stance against medically assisted suicide, arguing that the bid to end one’s life “is a distress signal indicating that something in the patient’s situation (medical, psychological, or social) is not adequately being attended to.”6 He lost that battle in 2019, when the AMA enshrined physicians’ right to help people die “according to the dictates of their conscience without violating their professional obligations.” But his standing with his peers remained solid. During the early months of the pandemic, he co-authored UCI’s pandemic ventilator triage guidelines and advised the California Department of Public Health on the state’s triage plan for allocating scarce medical resources.7
I first met Kheriaty on a Zoom call. He was holding a Q&A session for a Reddit group, shortly after taking legal action against UCI, and I was one of the moderators.8 The “silence of mainstream bioethics as these policies were rolled out” left him deeply troubled, he told us. That, and the lack of dialogue about preventive health. Diet and exercise to strengthen the immune system? Dropping a bit of weight? Nobody talked about it. “We know that that exercise improves immunity; we know that obesity is a major risk factor for bad outcomes with Covid. So this messaging should have been present from the beginning.”
But Kheriaty’s objection to the mandates goes beyond health and immune function. In The Wall Street Journal, he and co-author Gerald Bradley argue that university vaccine mandates violate basic principles of medical ethics9: “We don’t immunize [healthy young people] against diseases that primarily harm the elderly in hope of reducing transmission risks for the elderly… That would use the recipients as a means to another end, which is unethical.” Of all the arguments against the vaccine mandates, this one resonates most strongly with me, especially when applied to young children who don’t have the capacity to make their own health decisions. Using society’s youngest members to prop up older people’s health seems, well, icky. I wish I had a more scholarly term for it.
Curious to learn how Kheriaty might address the opposing argument—that using children to mitigate community transmission can benefit them directly if it keeps their own parents safer—I put the question to him in a personal interview. “That’s a theoretical piled on a theoretical,” he told me. “We don’t actually have any data showing this. Give me the facts.” Even if we did have data pointing in this direction, Kheriaty views the whole thing as deeply unethical. “Using kids as a shield is exactly what a healthy society doesn’t do. In a healthy society, adults take risks to protect children.” What’s more, saddling children with the responsibility to protect adults “is deeply harmful, psychologically. Don’t lay that on a child.”
As a practicing physician, Kheriaty takes the mandate to heal and do no harm to heart. At the same time, he respects his patients as autonomous beings with agency over their own health: “If I think an intervention will benefit a patient but it doesn’t accord with their values, I can make some effort to persuade them, but it’s not OK for me to violate their integrity as a separate person.”
Kheriaty’s arguments take us back to the principle of bodily autonomy, which posits that each of us owns our body and can decide what goes in it. If I want to eat doughnuts all day, it’s my business. The state can require the doughnut manufacturer to list calories and place upper limits on the use of trans fats, but it can’t tell me not to buy the products. By the same token, the state can’t force-feed me if I decide to go on a hunger strike to protest the imprisonment of a political dissident.
If we let go of bodily autonomy as a governing principle and lean too hard into our “collective duty,” we enter precarious ethical territory. One can imagine making the case that, for example, donating a kidney constitutes a moral obligation because the benefit to the recipient (living without dialysis) exceeds the harm to the donor (living with just one kidney, which most people can manage quite well). Is this the direction we want to take? As ethical norms mutate—and they always do—we need to keep talking about what we lose when we throw bodily autonomy overboard.
Shortly after Kheriaty was fired, the U.S. Supreme Court nixed the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for large private companies, which Kheriaty sees as a win. “By putting a stay on the OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] mandate, the court indicated, in principle, that there are limits to… what institutions can do to mandate vaccines,” he says.7 “That’s all positive.” Even so, he doesn’t expect the ruling to reopen his own case, which “has to do with whether the University of California has authority to mandate vaccines for its employees.”
Not that he lacks for things to do. His numerous appointments include chief of psychiatry and ethics at Doc1Health, chief of medical ethics at The Unity Project, director of the Zephyr Institute’s Health and Human Flourishing Program, and member of the advisory board for the Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy.10 He has written a book, The New Abnormal,11 which focuses on the biosecurity state and the militarization of public health. “It’s about our overreliance on the state of exception, on jumping from one emergency to the next, and on recasting problems such as climate change as public health issues.” And the private practice he started “is doing just fine. The vast majority of my patients have followed me to my practice.”
While he misses his students, he points out that teaching young people can take many forms: “We can teach with our words, [but] we can also teach with our actions.”7 In the summer of 2021, when he pictured himself facing his fall students on the podium, he “couldn’t imagine teaching about integrity and moral courage if…my actions didn’t back up what I taught in the classroom.” So, instead of preparing lectures on depression or assisted suicide, he gave his students a model for speaking out. “Several students have told me, ‘Your sacrifice has encouraged me or inspired me to take a stand myself.’ ”
Lawsuits like Kheriaty’s pave the way for more lawsuits, and sooner or later the plaintiffs start to win. In mid-2022, for example, 500 healthcare workers in Illinois won a $10.3 million victory against their employer, NorthShore University Health System, which had fired them for refusing the vaccine.12 In this case, the complaint revolved around religious conscience, but the argument matters less than the message.
Later in the same year, a judge reinstated 16 sanitation workers who were fired for refusing to comply with the New York City vaccination mandate issued a year earlier—and ruled they should get back pay.13 “There is nothing in the record to support the rationality of keeping a vaccination mandate for public employees, while vacating the mandate for private sector employees or creating a carveout for certain professions, like athletes, artists and performers,” the ruling stated, exposing the capriciousness of the mandate. In the judge’s estimation, “the mandate was not just about safety and public health; it was about compliance.”14 (The city is appealing the decision, but the ruling paves the way for the next court challenge.)
As momentum from such lawsuits builds, employers may think twice before tethering people’s livelihoods to a vaccine that prevents neither contracting nor transmitting a contagious disease. Best case scenario, the dominos start to fall and we can subject the hot-potato question—did the Covid vaccine mandates have an ethical leg to stand on?—to an uncensored public debate.
1. COVID-19 vaccine incentives (2021, October 19). National Governors Association. https://www.nga.org/center/publications/covid-19-vaccine-incentives/
2. Allen A (2021, October 16). Covid immunity through infection or vaccination: are they equal? ASBMBToday.https://www.asbmb.org/asbmb-today/policy/101621/covid-immunity-through-infection-or-vaccination-ar
3. Ponesse J (2022). My Choice. The Democracy Fund.
4. Roos D (2021, December 9). When the Supreme Court ruled a vaccine could be mandatory. History. https://www.history.com/news/smallpox-vaccine-supreme-court
5. Ponesse J (2021, November 22). Why are so many choosing life in a cage? Brownstone Institute. https://brownstone.org/articles/why-are-so-many-choosing-a-life-in-a-cage-dr-julie-ponesse/
6. Kheriaty A (2015, November 9). Letter to the American Medical Association. https://s27589.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Kheriaty-AMA-letter-1.pdf
7. Kheriaty M. Desmond JF (2022, January 18). Interview: Dr. Kheriaty discusses COVID-19, vaccine mandates and his dismissal from UC-Irvine. Ethics & Public Policy Center. https://eppc.org/publication/interview-dr-aaron-kheriaty-discusses-covid-19-vaccine-mandates-and-his-dismissal-from-uc-irvine/
8. Kheriaty A (2021, September 17). Ask Me Anything. Reddit. https://www.reddit.com/r/LockdownSkepticism/comments/pq5d16/i_am_aaron_kheriaty_md_as_me_anything/
9. Kheriaty A, Bradley GV (2021, June 14). University vaccine mandates violate medical ethics. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/university-vaccine-mandates-violate-medical-ethics-11623689220
10. Aaron Kheriaty biography. Zephyr Institute. https://www.zephyr.org/People/AARON-KHERIATY
11. Kheriaty N (2022). The New Abnormal. Regnery. https://www.regnery.com/9781684513857/the-new-abnormal/
12. Huston WT (2022, August 1). First-of-its-kind victory in covid shot mandate suit: workers awarded millions after having religious exemptions denied. Western Journal. https://www.westernjournal.com/first-kind-victory-covid-shot-mandate-suit-workers-awarded-millions-religious-exemptions-denied/
13. Vitagliano B (2022, October 25). New York State judge reinstates fired sanitation workers who did not comply with New York City’s vaccination mandate. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2022/10/25/us/new-york-covid-vaccine-workers-reinstated/index.html
14. Dolmetsch C (2022, October 25). NYC ordered to reinstate workers fired for Covid vaccine refusal. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-10-25/nyc-is-ordered-to-reinstate-workers-fired-for-vaccine-refusal