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RIGHT TO PRIVACY OF ONE’S OWN BODY IN THE CONTEXT OF VACCINATION POLICIES

INTRODUCTION

The COVID-19 Pandemic has immensely impacted life as we know it. The effect on people worldwide, with widespread behaviour changes being observed. These changes have become the new normal as individuals try to mitigate the spread of the virus. People are now more conscious of their habits, and governments worldwide have taken numerous steps to slow the spread of the virus. The exact change can be observed in large organisations that have taken specific steps to promote the safety of people. The Government, too, had devised particular guidelines for the pandemic. Several companies and corporations have enforced compulsory vaccinations for continuity of employment or receipt of service. In the United States, introducing mandatory vaccinations for COVID-19 has ignited a contentious debate. While some argue that it is necessary to protect public health, others express concerns about government overreach and the infringement of individual rights to bodily autonomy. Despite the resistance, several states have implemented vaccine mandates for certain occupations, such as healthcare workers and teachers. India, on the other hand, has taken a different approach to the pandemic. While the country has been heavily impacted by COVID-19, with many infections and fatalities, the government has prioritised promoting vaccination rather than mandating it. India’s vaccination campaign has been successful, with the country now administering one of the highest COVID-19 vaccine doses worldwide.

THE RIGHT TO PRIVACY IN THE CONTEXT OF INDIA

The Indian Constitution’s Article 21[1] on the right to life has been given the broadest meaning imaginable. According to the Supreme Court of India, the right to live a healthy life is included, and it obliges the State to protect everyone’s right to life. The Supreme Court said in “Vincent Panikurlangara v. Union of India[2]” that the “right to live with human dignity” entrenched in Article 21 of the Constitution includes the “right to maintenance and improvement of public health.” It was argued that having a healthy body is the cornerstone of all human endeavours. Under a welfare state, “maintenance and improvement of public health have to rank high amongst the State’s obligations, as these are indispensable to the very existence of the community.” Therefore, the mandatory vaccine policy was implemented with a valid State goal to combat the problem of vaccine hesitancy and preserve individual wellness since experts from throughout the world agree that immunisations are the only long-term solution to COVID-19. It was, however, rejected because mandatory vaccines are administered unwillingly and the invasion of one’s bodily space and lack of permission goes against the fundamental right to privacy.

The Supreme Court ruled in “Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) and Anr. v. Union of India and Ors. (2017)[3]” that the Constitution protected the right to privacy as a fundamental right and was essential for preserving individual autonomy, dignity, and freedom. In various decisions, notably “Suchita Srivastava and Anr. v. Chandigarh Administration and Ors. (2009)[4]” in the context of required vaccination, the Supreme Court has recognised the right to privacy of one’s body. According to the Supreme Court, a person’s right to privacy and their ability to control how they feel about their body are both protected. The capacity to keep one’s body private is a crucial aspect of this right to privacy. It alludes to a person’s autonomy in making decisions about their own body, particularly those concerning medical treatment, free from interference from the state or other individuals.

LEGAL BASIS AND CONSTITUTIONAL VALIDITY OF MANDATORY VACCINATION

The issue of mandatory vaccination and its constitutional validity has become increasingly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic. In India, there is an ongoing debate regarding whether mandatory vaccination infringes on an individual’s fundamental rights, including the right to privacy. We will review the rationale for and constitutionality of mandatory immunisation in India and assess pertinent legal precedents. A few fundamental rights the Indian people are granted under the constitution include the right to life, personal liberty, equality, and privacy. According to the Meghalaya High Court, forceful or compelled vaccination is extra vires ab initio and without any basis in law. The occurrence happened while the high court was considering a PIL involving state government orders mandating vaccinations for merchants, vendors, local taxi drivers, and others before they could continue their operations.

 In the case of “Jacob Puliyel vs. Union of India (UOI) and Ors[5]Jacob Puliyel, the petitioner contested the limitations that state governments, educational institutions, and other businesses had put on unvaccinated people’s access to resources, public spaces, and methods of making a living. The main reason for Puliyels’ objection was the absence of scientific evidence that those who have not had vaccinations are more likely to spread COVID-19 than those who have. After giving this matter some thought, the Court determined that the government’s vaccination programme is reasonable and, in the public’s best interest, especially given the overwhelming evidence that vaccinations provide better protection against more serious illnesses, the need for hospitalisation, and the danger of death. However, the key issue in this instance was whether or not the government may impose vaccination requirements as a prerequisite to using certain facilities and resources. After giving this matter some thought, the Court determined that the government’s vaccination programme is reasonable and, in the public’s, best interest, especially because of the overwhelming evidence that vaccinations provide better protection against more serious illnesses, the need for hospitalisation, and the danger of death. The key issue in this instance, however, was whether or not the government may impose vaccination requirements as a prerequisite to using certain facilities and resources. The Court’s investigation on compulsory vaccinations about personal autonomy used a two-pronged approach, concentrating on the key ways that the rights guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution may have been jeopardised.  

According to the court, the right to privacy does not include the right to endanger other people’s lives by refusing to get immunised against a deadly illness. Additionally, the court found that vaccination mandates do not violate a person’s fundamental rights. The Supreme Court has already referred to the issue of vaccination requirements.  In the case of “Union of India v. Sanjay Kumar Singh,”[6] the court upheld the necessity of vaccines for medical personnel. The court ruled that requiring healthcare professionals to vaccinate protects public health. Similarly, the Supreme Court supported the legitimacy of child immunisation requirements in “The Indian Academy of Paediatrics v. Union of India[7]. The court determined that requiring children to receive vaccinations is essential to preserve the public’s health and will not infringe on their right to privacy.

CONCLUSION

The issue of mandatory vaccination presents a complex dilemma that requires a delicate balance between individual rights and public concern. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this issue to the forefront, and governments worldwide have been implementing vaccination policies to protect public health. However, these policies have been resisted by individuals who believe their rights are being infringed upon. It is essential to recognise that the right to refuse vaccination is not ultimate and must be balanced against the more significant public interest. In situations where the Government’s policy is backed by scientific evidence and aimed at protecting public health, the individual’s right to refuse vaccination may be restricted in the more significant public interest. However, any restrictions on individual rights must be reasonable and proportionate to protect public health. Governments must ensure that their policies on mandatory vaccination are fair and that individuals have access to accurate information on the benefits and risks of vaccination. Education and awareness programs must be implemented to provide individuals with precise immunisation information, dispel misinformation, and encourage them to make the right health decisions.

Author(s) Name: Navaneeth P Nair (Indian Institute of Management Rohtak)

Reference(s):

[1] Constitution of India 1950, Article 21

[2] Vincent Panikurlangara v. Union of India [1987] AIR 1987 SC 990

[3] Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) and Anr. v. Union of India and Ors. [2017] AIR 2017 SC 4161

[4] Suchita Srivastava and Anr. v. Chandigarh Administration and Ors. [2009] AIR 2010 SC 235

[5] Jacob Puliyel vs. Union of India (UOI) and Ors  [2022] MANU/SC/0566/2022

[6] Union of India v. Sanjay Kumar Singh [2011] AIR 2012 SC 1783

[7] Association of Medical Super Speciality Aspirants and Residents and Ors. vs Union of India (UOI) and Ors. [2019] MANU/SC/1112/2019