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May 2000
Taking a Stand for Vegans

The Satya Interview with Jerry Friedman


In 1997 Jerry Friedman accepted a contract position with Kaiser Permanente, a major health maintenance organization based in California, as a computer technician. In 1998 he was offered a permanent position and accepted. He was told that he would need a health screening, which included a tuberculosis (TB) test, and have his blood screened for various communicable diseases. Friedman asked Kaiser whether the TB test was vegan. A senior drug researcher informed him that "the product does not have any animal by-products in it and does not appear to come in contact with any animal by-products during the manufacturing process." Consequently, Friedman took the TB test.

Soon after, he was informed that he lacked the mumps antibody—Kaiser’s policy requires sufficient immunity. Friedman learned from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), however, that the mumps vaccine is cultured in chicken embryos and that there are no nonanimal alternatives. Friedman refused to take the test and was dismissed as a result. Moreover, Friedman later discovered that the serum used in the TB test actually contained bovine (cow) serum.

A long-time animal activist and vegan, Jerry Friedman, with lawyer Scott Myer, is now suing Kaiser for discrimination and battery, with a hearing scheduled for April 25. Here, Friedman describes this unprecedented case and the potential that it has to affect vegans nationwide.

How would you describe your vegan ethical system?
My vegan ethic can be summarized as founded upon the utilitarian principle to maximize happiness. Happiness is maximized by healthy humans and nonhumans (only by a plant-based diet). Happiness extends to preventing unnecessary death, such as for fur, silk or hides, or hunting. I am against human and nonhuman slavery—call it labor, entertainment, or any related forced servitude such as harvesting wool.

My ethics extend to all sentient animals. Sentience is normally considered the ability to feel pleasure or pain. I believe that if one can feel pain, one deserves not to have pain unnecessarily inflicted upon them. Thus, by accepting the mumps vaccine my actions would be saying that the hens and their children belong in prisons—in factory farms—and that my happiness at keeping the job and submitting to Kaiser’s ill-serving policy is more important than resisting the pain and misery endured by the hens and the deaths of their embryos.

What are the specifically vegan issues in this case?
It’s about protecting ethical vegans from discrimination. Buddhist prisoners have successfully gotten vegetarian meals because of their religion, but an ethical vegan or agnostic would have to fight hard to do the same. This will be a case where a vegan can singly persuade any governmental body to provide protection equal to the protections provided to religions.

In a U.S. Supreme Court case (Gillette v. U.S., 1970), the court recognized that conscience and belief are the "bedrock of religion." In an Alabama Supreme Court case (Smith v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County, 1987), the court wrestled with whether secular humanism was the functional equivalent of a religion, for like Buddhism and Humanistic Judaism, secular humanists have no belief in god. Russel Kirk, one of the experts testifying before the Alabama court, said: "Modern definitions of religion encompass those religions which do not believe in a transcendent order or in a divine power, but which are primarily ethical in content rather than transcendent or supernatural."

I argue that ethical veganism should be treated as a religion for those who adhere to it. Vegans should not be discriminated against in the workplace or in public; we should not lose employment or housing opportunities; nor should we be persecuted in any way because of it. I have endured mild harassment on the job before, which I accept because being vegan is unusual. But this is the first time my livelihood has been cut off for no other reason except that I did not compromise my ethics for my employer.

The precedent this lawsuit will set is to interpret the California Constitution to include profoundly held ethical beliefs as a protected class in the same way that religion is a protected class. This in turn may persuade other states to follow California’s decision, or perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court, if California determines that "religion" is broad enough to include ethical veganism.

There are 11 causes of action in the suit, including discrimination, battery by fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress; 11 reasons why I’m asking the court to find Kaiser Permanente wrongful in their deeds and to compensate me for them. The whole complaint can be viewed on the web [see below].

How did you present your objections to getting a mumps shot to your employers?
I drafted a letter to Kaiser explaining why I refused to take the mumps vaccine, founded upon my vegan ethics. The egg-laying hens are in miserable conditions in the factory farms and the eggs themselves are unborn chicks (embryos) who are discarded after the vaccine has been cultured. This use of sentient animals as human commodities is strictly forbidden by my ethic. The letter further explained that I would do anything not harmful to human or nonhuman animals to comply with the spirit of Kaiser’s policy. Their response was the canceling of my contract and rescission of the offer of employment, specifically because I did not pass health screening.

One has to ask why mumps, a mild disease according to the CDC, is a required vaccine, yet the vaccine for Hepatitis B, a deadly disease, is optional. There are other more severe diseases than mumps that have vaccines, but Kaiser does not require them.

What’s even more questionable is that mumps is a childhood disease (85% of cases are in children), yet students aged seven and over are excluded from having to take the vaccine by the State of California, and a student of any age can be excused from taking a vaccine for "a medical condition or personal belief." The State does not require a religious belief, only a personal belief.

At Kaiser, I was assigned to work at a specific warehouse and had no exposure to patients. An infectious disease specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) states that it is basically impossible for someone infected with mumps to pass the disease to someone with immunity and then for that person to spread mumps to another person. This defeats any argument that a Kaiser physician, visiting the warehouse, could become contaminated with mumps by me and then infect a patient in Kaiser’s care.

When did you learn that the TB test you had taken contained bovine (cow) serum? How did that make you feel?
About a year after my termination, I learned from a friend that the TB test contains bovine serum. I called the manufacturer and spoke with a representative. At first, she said it was free of animal products, but after we scrutinized each ingredient she said that Tween 80, a stabilizer in the test, was a sugar derived from cow’s or pig’s blood.

I am reasonably certain all vaccines are derived from animals. Some are derived from pigs which many religious people don’t know about, as many religious people abstain from pig products.

At the risk of offending some readers, I felt like how I think a pro-life activist would if they discovered they were unwillingly injected with fetal tissue. This act ranks at the top of the most offensive things ever to happen to me. I am troubled by the faulted research provided by a major medical organization (what if I had been allergic to the ingredient in question), and that I relied upon that research only to be injected with the blood of the animals I work every waking hour to protect from harm.

One of your charges is that you were an "unwitting" experimental subject. Could you explain this?
Everyone deserves to know everything about any medical procedure done to them, and knowing this, only their consent should permit a doctor to proceed. It’s excused in an emergency, meaning that any delay to gain this consent would risk the patient’s life or limb. It’s understandable, according to the State, that if the procedure is already known to be health sustaining, that it probably isn’t an experiment. The TB test is neither. Federal and California State law says that any person who does not give informed consent to a medical procedure is considered a medical experiment if the procedure is neither health sustaining nor an emergency procedure.

In the case of the TB test, I would have refused the injection had I known its ingredients. As Kaiser knew veganism was a material concern of mine, and as they withheld the details of ingredients, they technically broke that law.

Another charge is that you experienced battery to your person. Could you explain?
Battery is an "intentional harmful or offensive touching of another against their will." This is the touching of the needle to and in my skin and vein, and the TB test—with the cow’s blood ingredient—being injected into me.

Battery is usually thought of as a mighty and plainly injurious touching, such as being hit with a fist, but any harmful or offensive touching is battery. As the law works, because I would have refused the TB test had my question about the ingredients been answered correctly, Kaiser injected me with something offensive against my will, and this amounts to battery (by fraud) and invasion of privacy.

How has this lawsuit and the experiences surrounding it affected you?
I am morbidly troubled by the injuries I have suffered. I have lost faith in the medical industry because of their gross mistake in research, by Kaiser and the manufacturer. What does a patient need to do to get good information? I am disgusted whenever I recall the TB test needle going into my arm. I feel very let down that a company that I was happy to work for terminated my employment for a policy that wasn’t serving its purpose. I continue to suffer anxiety and insomnia which I directly attribute to these acts, and these in turn cause migraines.

Are you prepared to see this suit to the very end?
I have no reason to abandon this case. I will only be happy if justice is served. Kaiser needs to apologize for their misdeeds through the jury’s judgment.

However, if Kaiser Permanente made a settlement offer that would outweigh all the good that could come out of this case, which could include millions to developing and promoting nonanimal research, millions to promote plant-based diets, and throw in a million to start a Green Scholarship, I may abandon this case. It’s unimaginable for Kaiser to make such an offer, because the good this suit can do has more value than the money they’ll lose when I win.

What are you doing now?
I am in law school. I wish to become a movement lawyer, working on keeping the government and businesses accountable for their misdeeds, and to defend activists when they break bad laws. Allegedly break, I mean.

To learn more or to read the entire complaint, visit Contact Jerry Friedman via email:


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