Speaking out against the HPV vaccine

By  Moira Mcqueen, Catholic Register Special
  • October 4, 2007
HPV.jpgWhen the news broke early in 2007 that a new vaccine (Gardasil) was available that would protect young girls from the effects of the human papillomavirus (HPV), the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute issued a press report outlining our objections to the way in which this vaccine was being promoted. In the United States, some states had urged mandatory vaccination for girls from Grade 6 onwards. The main reason given was that HPV has been shown to be one of the causes of cervical cancer in women.

More recently, in Canada the provincial governments of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Ontario have advocated and made provisions for the administration of this vaccination through schools for the same age groups (in Ontario from Grade 8), although it is made clear that parents have the right to opt out. There are, however, several ethical questions to be raised about this vaccine and its use.

{sidebar id=2}Our primary message is that sexual intercourse is for marriage

The CCBI objects to a mandatory or mass approach to such vaccination. If there are no other ways to prevent children (and in Grade 6, we are talking about children) and adults from contracting a specific disease, then vaccination is clearly a good action. If, on the other hand, a disease is preventable by some other means, surely it makes sense to employ those means. This virus is contracted as a result of sexual intercourse. If young (or older) people are not sexually active, they will not contract it. Prevention of the virus, therefore, is possible by means other than vaccination.

Catholic teaching recognizes and has long taught that the gift of sexual intercourse belongs to the covenanted relationship of marriage. This teaching is perennial, in terms of being faithful to the Lord’s commands. It is important that young people should be educated about sexuality and sex, as well as learning about HPV and all other sexually transmitted diseases. They should be made aware of everything that is possibly involved in so-called “casual” or “recreational” sexual activity. It is not a sport, but an activity that demands thought and care.

Yes, some people will say this is idealistic, and that young people are going to go ahead and “have” sex, regardless of the consequences. According to that view, society should protect them as far as possible from every possible transmission of disease. With all the stress currently placed on autonomy, it is surprising that such a view would be easily accepted. Wouldn’t a wiser course of action be to encourage children to become mature, to develop as individuals, to think about their future careers, to learn how to “be” with members of the opposite sex, without expectations that they will necessarily be sexually active?  Of course it is known that some young people in these grades are sexually active, but I doubt that parents actually agree that that’s a good thing, and that, as long as they are protected against any consequences of their actions, they should go right ahead.

Educate for responsible sexual behaviour

The awareness we have today of all the potential dangers involved in premature sexual activity should be leading parents not only to educate their children about sex, but also to teach them to say “no” at these young ages and stages. Young people are not as knowledgeable as they (or we) think they are. Anyone who is involved in a sexual relationship should be old enough to accept responsibility for what is going on, and to know all the possible consequences of sexual activity, including the possibility of pregnancy. Responsibility for one’s actions in turn belies the need for mandatory vaccination, and leaves the responsibility where it should be — with the individual concerned, or, in the case of underage children, with the parent who perhaps sees that the child needs to be protected, almost against himself/herself.

Appearance of condoning early sexual activity

In our press release, we said that a socially condoned, mass approach to vaccination gives a message that early sexual intercourse is allowed, as long as one is “protected.”  This societal message also implies that young people are not capable of making decisions for themselves: in other words, society is really saying they are too young to make good decisions. If this is the case, then these young people most definitely should NOT be contemplating sexual intercourse.

There is a need for consistency here. If young people need to be protected from the consequences of their own behaviour, would it not make more sense to encourage them to examine that behaviour, and to try to understand some of the consequences?  Instead, society is rushing to protect, without rushing to explain. Yet society does not have a problem saying that under age drinking is potentially dangerous — why do we not do the same about underage sexual activity? ALL behaviour has consequences.

More long-term testing needed

There are some scientific challenges to the efficacy of the vaccine itself. As a society, we may disagree about moral values concerning sexual behaviour. When it comes to factual matters, it is important to look at the claims of all groups including those who insist that the clinical trials performed in testing Gardasil for HPV did not prove that it is safe to give to young girls.

Many dispute the figures depicting HPV as the leading cause of cervical cancer in any case. Some statistics show that HPV is the cause in only one per cent of these cancers. The drug's producer Merck, itself warns that Gardasil does not protect against all cervical cancers, and that those vaccinated must still be screened. These factors do not eliminate the gravity of this disease, but, if accurate, they show that a rush to mass vaccination against HPV is, to say the least, scientifically disproportionate.

When all these points are taken together, it appears that the provision of this vaccine is not without serious ethical and physical concerns. If there is a rush to implement general screening programs for girls from Grade 6 or Grade 8 onwards, without further reflection on these concerns, then something is sadly out of kilter in how young girls and women are valued in society today.

(Dr. McQueen is executive director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, based in Toronto. This article is excerpted with permission from Bioethics Matters, Sept. 2007.)

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