A Lone Pine of a Woman: A Review of Julie Ponesse's My Choice

April 2022

Julie Ponesse, My Choice: The Ethical Case Against Covid-19 Vaccine Mandates, The Democracy Fund, Toronto, 2021 (Trade Paperback, 100 pages).

Julie Ponesse, twenty years a philosophy and ethics professor at Huron College in London, Ontario, was “terminated with cause” last September for exercising her right to control her own body, specifically her right not to be injected with a covid vaccine. Her book, My Choice: The Ethical Case Against Covid-19 Vaccine Mandates, is slim (one hundred pages, including appendices), but clear, well-written, and packed with sound logic, common sense, and, yes, heroism. It is an appropriate pushback against the covid tyranny we have experienced since March 2020, from someone with vast and impressive expertise in the field of bioethics.

Dr Ponesse mentions growing up in a home that encouraged free thinking, which contributed to her independence, thoughtfulness, and openness to various ideas. Such attributes ought to make her an ideal academic, someone any university would be proud and honoured to have in their employ. Aren’t universities supposed to be havens for spirited debates and the free flow of ideas? Apparently, this has ceased to be the case as Dr Ponesse has been largely (not entirely) abandoned by her academic community, some even going so far as to support her firing and to question her competence in the field of ethics. She is not the first and will not be the last to suffer this fate. Even academic friends have deserted her. But on the positive end of the spectrum, there is reason for optimism. While Dr Ponesse was forced to break bonds with one group, others, including the Democracy Fund, with a willingness to listen to various viewpoints, and with an aversion to ostracism and depersonalization have entered her life, offering her acceptance.

It is often claimed that bad ideas are hatched in universities and spread to the rest of society. But this is not so with covid protocols. Instead, it is our politicians (or their unelected and equally authoritarian health bureaucrats who seemingly control them) who are responsible for the mess. Their message has been enthusiastically spread to a terrified public by our state broadcaster and other government subsidized mainstream media outlets. But alas, universities are not blameless. True to “woke” form, they have piled on by subordinating freedom to authoritarianism with their own vaccination and mask mandates.

Yet masks symbolize conformity and submission. Besides, viruses, covid or otherwise, go right through them and escape or enter through their sides. Nevertheless, they appear to be a fad now and we persist in wearing them, so as to resemble members of some dystopian doomsday cult, while upholding the fiction that “we are all in this together”, as we snitch on our neighbours for hosting New Year’s Eve parties. Adding injury to insult, Dr Ponesse sums things up when she says that masking breeds social isolation by limiting our ability to express friendliness or compassion or to recognize (italics ours) such attributes in others.

Criticisms of vaccine mandates are also warranted for reasons other than one’s individual liberty. Dr Ponesse cites data showing that covid vaccines aren’t overly effective in preventing the disease, (although they appear to lessen its seriousness), and children are more at risk from potential vaccine side effects than from dying of covid. Also alarming is her reference to the UK Office of Natural Statistics, which reports a 56% increase in teen deaths in Great Britain since the covid vaccine rollout. Causes aren’t specified, so it is unclear how many are attributed to these jabs. Nevertheless, we know that isolation and depression have spiked for children and adults since the covid crisis began, leaving in its wake an increased number of suicides (and contemplated suicides), opioid overdoses, alcoholism, child and spousal abuse, unemployment, poverty, and other social problems.

But those itching to dismiss Dr Ponesse as one of those “horrid anti-vaxxers” are sure to be disappointed. She unequivocally supports Ebola and smallpox vaccines, in no small measure because they have proven track records over several decades. She would even support covid vaccines for health professionals, if only they were more effective.

If nothing else, universities should find solace in the fact that younger, healthier demographics comprise the lion’s share of their students. As such, we must question the logic of locking down universities for all and sundry in favour of online learning, thereby depriving students of the complete university experience. The better alternative, as Dr Ponesse correctly states, was/is for society to “[circle] the health wagons around the most vulnerable in our population and let life go on far closer to normal for the rest of us” (p.82), including university students and professors.

Alternatives could be or could have been provided to students and faculty with comorbidities, and therefore more at risk. Perhaps such students could withdraw with a full refund or have their fees placed in limbo, then applied when conditions permit them to safely resume their studies in-house. Online options or taking courses live through Zoom could also work for some (not all) disciplines, as could traditional correspondence methods, aided and abetted by “snail mail”. Much would depend on whatever could be arranged with respective professors.

Likewise, some academics at risk could teach their courses online or by correspondence. Others should have the option of taking sick leave with full pay and benefits. Perhaps their courses could either be temporarily contracted out to substitutes or cancelled until they are able to return.

Yet Dr Ponesse reminds us that covid hysteria is just a recent symptom of the malaise that has festered in the universities for the past several decades. Blind trust in authority has replaced healthy skepticism, even in universities, which Dr Ponesse maintains have become “left leaning monocultures”. “Safety cultures” are all too commonplace on campus and there is even mob bullying against those who refuse to conform to politically correct orthodoxies. Frances Widdowson of Mount Royal University is but the most recent example of an academic who was dismissed for views and writings deemed inappropriate by “woke” zealots. How much of a stretch is it for speech and thought police to extend their totalitarianism to mask and vaccine mandates, as well as social distancing? Campus dissenters can be labelled “racists”, “misogynists”, and members of a “fringe”, so as to echo our petulant man-boy prime minister’s disgraceful treatment of the Freedom Convoy.

Alas, Dr Ponesse is not optimistic about the future of traditional universities, although she constructively cites some alternatives and possible exceptions, including former New York Times journalist Bari Weiss’ proposed new University in Austin, Texas, which is based on such Enlightenment ideals as freedom of thought and academic freedom. Apparently, it now has a board of over thirty prominent academics and public figures and there have reportedly been over three thousand professors and PhD holders who have expressed interest in joining its faculty. Dr Ponesse is also a member of the Toronto-based Democracy Fund, which has launched an Ideas Institute initiative, and she adds that New York University professor Mark Crispin Miller is spearheading an online university. While the online format may be a viable option for independent and highly motivated liberal arts students, it could be problematic for those in science, engineering, and agricultural disciplines, where there is lab or field work.

Finally, Dr Ponesse stresses that, regardless of our specialization, literature and the arts can broaden our perspectives and make us more complete human beings, especially if we integrate the ideals they espouse into our lives. Indeed, much has been lost by overspecialization and the spawning of “experts” with tunnel vision who lack conceptions of the bigger picture. Here’s looking at you, doctors Fauci and Tam. So while advanced academic studies emphasize specialization, it is also incumbent upon us to be self-taught ---- to pursue the great works at our leisure, on our own time, without relying on others to direct us. Learning ought to be life-long and not something that ends with formal education.

On a concluding note, Dr Ponesse claims to be no hero for merely standing up for freedom and liberty. Au contraire. It is fair to describe her as a “lone pine of a woman” who is speaking out against the ostracism from those who, truth be told, lack her strength and integrity. She ought to be admired, not shamed, for speaking out against academic and medical tyranny. It is indeed refreshing to find someone not wasting their valuable energies on self-abasement. Given that Dr Ponesse has literally sacrificed her career and livelihood and has a child to support, yet still “fights the good fight”, is to get a glimpse of the integrity and strength of this woman. She is far more courageous than most of us and her account of the current state of academe raises the question: is academe dead or, at best, on life support?