First of all, I want to commend those Catholic School Districts which took the courageous stance “no” to the Alberta Government’s voluntary HPV vaccination program. They got it right!
In the case of minors, parents must decide whether or not their child is to be vaccinated.
A Catholic institution has a different responsibility, i.e. to live faithfully its mission and teaching. To witness to the teaching and values of Jesus Christ requires sound moral reflection and judgement. In some instances, given the complexity of an issue, after due consideration and prayer, parents may opt for a plan of action that is not endorsed by the Catholic school.
Judgements of what is right or wrong are ethical or moral decisions. The Catholic moral tradition develops through prayer, study reflection, and the recognition of the Holy Spirit at work through various sources. Such sources include health and social service providers, the experience of the Christian community, moral theologians, bishops, church teaching and Sacred Scripture. No source of knowledge pertinent to the issue at hand should be neglected.
Some of the values and principles that direct ethical decision-making and that enable us to respond to the call to respect dignity, promote justice and foster trust are: the dignity of every human person, stewardship and creativity, respect for life and the common good.
Reactions to the government’s plan are very mixed and involve moral issues.
First of all, are we confident that this vaccine is safe to administer to young girls? Many, including Dr. Diane M. Harper, a lead researcher, scientist, physician, professor and former director of Gynecological Cancer Prevention Research Group at Dartmouth Medical School have stated: “This vaccine should not be mandated for 11 year old girls ...It’s not been tested in little girls for efficacy. At 11, these girls don’t get cervical cancer - they won’t know for 25 years if they will get cervical cancer. Giving it to 11 year olds is a great big public health experiment.”
In 2007 Maclean’s magazine published a five page cover story suggesting adoption of the Gardasil vaccine would make “guinea pigs” of Canadian girls.
Why is Alberta opting for a mass vaccination of girls in Grade 5 and 9? Other provinces have picked different grades. Is there a secret or unannounced government plan to administer this vaccine each year, so that we will eventually catch up to those currently in Grade 9? What about those currently in Grades 10, 11, and 12? Is it simply a matter of convenience and economics to administer several vaccines at the same time?
Contrary to those who state that the vaccine is safe with very few side effects and merely cite temporary soreness at the site of the injection, the U.S. Judicial Watch organization and the Vaccination Risk Awareness Network report a wide spectrum of reported adverse reactions.
Secondly, this vaccine is different than other commonly accepted vaccines in that HPV is a sexually transmitted disease. The vaccine may only be potentially effective to address the risk of physical health, and would not address a young person’s spiritual, emotional or moral health.
Furthermore, if a disease is preventable by other means, especially natural means, then surely it makes sense to employ those means. Catholic moral teaching affirms that the gift of sexual intercourse belongs to the covenanted relationship of marriage.
Consequently, parents, physicians, educators and governing bodies should adopt a health-oriented approach that addresses sexual attitudes and behaviours recommending delayed genital sexual activity. We should teach critical thinking skills; provide factual information and guidelines as needed; and teach right from wrong and equip our youth for proper decision-making. A school-based approach to vaccination runs the risk of sending at least an implicit message that early sexual intercourse is allowed, as long as one uses "protection."
The "popular" wisdom these days insists that because we can't stop our children from engaging in pre-marital sex, and because such sex can be dangerous and have bad effects, we should do everything we can to protect our youngsters by vaccinating them against the HPV virus. The vaccine, we are assured, will decrease cervical cancer in a simple, straightforward way. If parents love their children, they will surely see to it that they have "protection".
This argument, widely accepted in all strata of our society, relies on a seriously flawed understanding of what love really means. We need only consider a related example to see this flaw clearly. If our children decide that they are going to play hopscotch on a busy street, in the midst of high-speed traffic, would we be manifesting our love for them by giving them helmets to place over their heads for "protection," or would real love involve pulling them off the street and insisting they learn abstinence from hopscotch in high speed traffic areas? Which of these actions genuinely manifests a parent's love for their children?
Respecting the God-given designs for our sexuality and struggling towards sexual self-mastery is one of the great challenges of our age, and probably of every age. Arguments in favour of widespread availability of the HPV vaccine are emblematic of a collective loss of nerve in the face of powerful libertine pressures within our culture.
Thirdly, it must be asked why is the Alberta government willing to spend millions ($380 estimated per person) on this vaccine with the distinct possibility that booster shots, which will add further costs, may be needed in the future? Would it make more sense to allocate those resources to palliative care or mental health which remain grossly underfunded in Alberta?
From a moral point of view, the answer is quite clear. If the vaccines are to be offered, they should be given in health centres or clinics, recreational or community centres, but not in Catholic schools. The province for its part should pay for such vaccinations.
☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus of Calgary