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This author agrees with the claim that freedom of association is a basic moral right and that the right to have visitors stems from this freedom. This author also agrees that the discussion around visitor policy should be framed as a discussion about rights infringement. However, this author suggests that the discussion around restriction is best described as a potential conflict between two rights: freedom of association and the right to safety. Accordingly, the rights infringement could go either way.
It is reasonable to claim that people have a moral right to safety (or something like it), and it is reasonable to say that this right should be highly protected in a hospital, where the sick and injured seek treatment. If people do have a right to safety, then it follows that this right would be infringed if hospitals did not take reasonable precautions to reduce hospital-acquired infections. Limiting visitors during COVID-19 should be seen as an example of such a precaution.
To be clear, McTernan recognizes that safety is an important consideration, but she does not state that it is a right. This affects the framing of the issue. Appealing to something as a right makes it substantially harder to act against that which is protected by that right. It is for this reason that McTernan correctly argues that restricting visitation is harder when we appeal to freedom of association.
The issue, then, is one in which patients have potentially two conflicting...
The issue, then, is one in which patients have potentially two conflicting rights that pull in opposite directions. The upshot is that the solution must be a balance between the two rights, which brings us to the next point.
McTernan is against hospitals “weighing the costs and benefits and coming up with some policy on what seems a reasonable amount of access to visitors[.]”(1) And she believes that framing the issue in terms of freedom of association can achieve that goal. However, if the issue is best framed as a potential conflict between two rights, then a cost-benefit analysis (or something like it) cannot be avoided. Unless there is some way to prevent visitors from transmitting the virus, respecting one right will potentially infringe the other. Hence, we will be forced to come up with some policy based on what seems like a reasonable amount of visitation.
1. McTernan E. Against visitor bans: freedom of association, COVID-19 and the hospital ward. J Med Ethics [Internet]. 2022 Sep 26; Available from: https://jme.bmj.com/lookup/doi/10.1136/jme-2022-108297