New Delhi: The Supreme Court ruled Monday that individuals cannot be forced to take Covid-19 vaccines as it would violate their fundamental Right to Privacy under Article 21, which grants every citizen the right to live with dignity.
A bench of justices L.N. Rao and B.R. Gavai, however, upheld the Modi government’s vaccination policy, including that for children, as being “sound and in tune with the WHO guidelines”.
The bench further asked states and private entities to desist from placing restrictions on those who refuse to get themselves vaccinated for Covid.
Restrictions, if any, will be subject to constitutional scrutiny to examine if they meet the requirement for intrusion into rights of individuals, in line with the 2017 Right to Privacy judgment, the court said.
The Supreme Court also told the Centre to put in the public domain the results of adverse effects faced by patients due to the vaccines, so that it enables citizens to make an informed choice and grant informed consent.
The verdict came on a petition filed by Jacob Puliyel, former member of the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI), which is the highest technical body that evaluates data on new and upcoming vaccines or reviews data from the ones already rolled out, when needed.
Puliyel had sought disclosure of Covid vaccine trial data and stay on “vaccine mandates”.
The court held that an individual’s right to bodily integrity and refusal to get medically treated cannot be questioned. Therefore, “no individual can be forced to be vaccinated”. But it added that, in the “interest of protection of communitarian health, the government is entitled to regulate issues of public health concern by imposing certain limitations”.
“As long as there is a risk of spreading the disease, there can be restrictions placed on individuals’ rights in larger public interest,” ruled the bench.
“Considering bodily autonomy, bodily integrity is protected under Article 21, no one can be forced to get vaccinated. (But) government can regulate in areas of bodily autonomy,” the bench said.
In his petition, Puliyel had challenged restrictions imposed on unvaccinated individuals by various states, claiming that the precondition for accessing any benefits or services is a violation of rights of citizens and unconstitutional.
Puliyel alleged the vaccines being administered were not adequately tested for safety or efficacy, and yet were licensed under emergency-use authorisation, without making their trial data public.
On its part, the Centre defended the vaccination policy and cautioned the court against accepting the petitioner’s stand as it “may lead to vaccine hesitancy”. However, the Centre denied making vaccines mandatory and said it was a purely voluntary exercise.
With regard to clinical data and vaccine vial monitors, the Centre submitted they were updated on a real-time basis. Puliyel’s plea, if accepted, would violate the rights of citizens to get vaccinated against the virus, according to the Centre.
While the bench cleared the vaccination policy for children, it ordered that the clinical trial data on this be made public at the earliest.
From the data presented before it, the court said, it cannot be said that the restricted emergency-use approval for Covishield and Covaxin among adults was “given in haste without thorough review of relevant data”.
The court ruled that results of phase 3 clinical trials of the vaccines in question have been published.
‘Restrictions by states/UTs not proportionate’
Partially allowing Puliyel’s petition, the top court said the Centre’s vaccination policy fulfilled the “three-fold” requirement laid down in the K.S. Puttaswamy case, which declared the Right to Privacy as intrinsic to Article 21.
The 2017 verdict propounded the concept of bodily integrity and privacy, but said the government can bring in laws to impose restrictions on this right as well. However, such a law would be open to scrutiny by constitutional courts, the verdict said.
To test such a law’s constitutional validity, in case it came under judicial scrutiny, the 2017 judgment laid down a test of proportionality under which it has to be ascertained whether the state has a legitimate aim to bring it, and if the law or the means adopted to implement it is proportionate to its objective.
Applying the legal principle in Puliyel’s case, the top court said that though an individual can refuse to get medically treated and cannot be forced to be vaccinated, the government is equally entitled to regulate issues of public health concern by imposing certain limitations.
“With respect to bodily integrity and personal autonomy of an individual considered in the light of vaccines and other public health measures introduced to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, we are of the opinion that bodily integrity is protected under Article 21 of the Constitution and no individual can be forced to be vaccinated,” it said.
“Further, personal autonomy of an individual, which is a recognised facet of protections guaranteed under Article 21, encompasses the right to refuse to undergo any medical treatment in the sphere of individual health,” the court added.
On the question of whether the vaccination policy, which permitted emergency approvals to Covid vaccines, passed the test laid out in the Puttaswamy verdict, the top court answered in the affirmative.
“On the basis of substantial material filed before this court reflecting the near unanimous views of experts on the benefits of vaccination in addressing severe disease from the infection… This court is satisfied that the current vaccination policy of the Union of India is informed of the relevant considerations and cannot be said to be unreasonable or manifestly arbitrary,” the court said in its verdict, which runs into 115 pages.
However, on the restrictions placed on unvaccinated individuals by states and Union territories, the court said they are not “proportionate”.
It said the Centre and states had not placed “any data” to “controvert” data by the petitioner “in the form of emerging scientific opinion which appears to indicate that the risk of transmission of virus from unvaccinated individuals is almost on par with that from vaccinated persons”.
“In light of this, restrictions by states governments/Union territories cannot be said to be proportionate,” the court said.
Therefore, it suggested that the authorities across the country, “including private organisations and educational institutions”, which have imposed such mandates, review them “till the infection rate remains low and any new development of research… emerges which justifies due justifications to impose reasonable and proportionate restrictions on the rights of unvaccinated individuals…”
The court said that “in the context of the rapidly evolving situation presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, our suggestion to review the vaccine mandates imposed by state/Union territories is related to present situation alone and is not to be construed as interfering with the lawful exercise of power by the executive to take suitable measures for prevention of infection and transmission of the virus”.
The court said its suggestion to states not to impose restrictions “does not extend to any other directions requiring maintenance of Covid-appropriate behaviour issued by the Union or the state governments”.
On paediatric vaccination, the court said it recognises that “the decision taken by the Union of India to vaccinate children in this country… is in tune with global scientific consensus… and it is beyond the scope of review for this court to second-guess expert opinion on the basis of which the government has drawn up its policy”.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)