Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Gardasil Vaccine and the Morality Issue

It’s absolutely inevitable. Whether I’m reading a seasoned journalist’s story, a rookie reporter’s college newspaper report, or a science junkie’s “we debunk the flat-earther viewpoint” blog, watch out, here it comes.

Some version of the chestnut about parents withholding Gardasil from their kids because they’re afraid the kids will immediately scream, “ooh, goody!” and run off to have lots of sex. Or even just a little bit of sex.

In fact, when my kids’ pediatrician discussed Gardasil with me at a scheduled check-up just after the 3-shot HPV vaccine first hit the market, and I said I thought we’d wait, she stiffened. “Oh,” she said, “We did worry that parents would be uncomfortable with thinking about their children having sex, or that the churches would come out against it, but fortunately that doesn’t seem to have happened. Most parents are very happy about it.”

Implication: You’re a) just a naïve prude, and/or b) a snake-handler church adherent.

But the funny thing is that even the Catholic Church, not exactly known for encouraging wild promiscuity, hasn’t condemned it. “The CMA supports widespread use of Gardasil® for girls and women in the age range for which the vaccine has been recommended by the ACIP, because it is effective, safe, and ethical to use, provided certain conditions are met…There is no ethical objection to the HPV vaccine either as a strategy against disease or in its production. Patients and parents must have the opportunity to give informed consent to its Administration,” reads the Catholic Medical Association’s policy paper.

Maybe I’m hanging out in the wrong church or with the wrong people, but for all the many parents I know who have chosen not to vaccinate with Gardasil—and for all those who have chosen to do so, too—morality has nothing to do with it at all. It's purely a medical issue. I wouldn't even feel compelled to discuss the reason for it with an eleven or twelve-year old before getting her the vaccine, any more than I'd go into the whys and wherefores of MMR. Crabby old Texas found the same thing.

“Local researchers have found that mothers' views about premarital sex don't affect their decisions on whether their pre-teen or teenage daughters should get the vaccine against the sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer. The survey, by a team at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, appears to refute the perception that mothers who opt against their daughters receiving the vaccine for the human papillomavirus do so because they oppose sex before marriage.

"This is a decision about parenting, vulnerability and vaccine attitudes, not sexuality," said Susan Rosenthal, a UTMB pediatric psychologist and the study's lead author. "Mothers who haven't had their daughter vaccinated yet most often said they want more time to learn about the vaccine." (Reported by Todd Ackerman in the Houston Chronicle.)

Now, admittedly the study was funded by Merck and researched in Texas, which, as we now know, had a bit of a vested interest; and since then some of us who’ve had "more time” haven’t liked what we learned at all. And granted, there are always the odd comments about “if you were decent parents and taught your kids to keep their legs crossed…” and a few outbursts from the kind of reactionary professional mouths that make a damned good living out of screaming “I’m a politically incorrect straight-talker! Look at me!”

But, from my experience, I don’t think the study is far wrong.

So color me paranoid, but I’m wondering where all this talk about prudish, naïve parents worrying about enabling slutty behavior comes from. Could it have started with a marketing genius’ pre-emptive strike? Could it have been designed to cut through resistance and marginalize people who aren’t persuaded?

Who the heck knows? Merck’s marketing machine is certainly sophisticated enough. All I know is that, sure, like most parents, I’m not particularly comfortable with thinking about my daughters having sex sometime in the future, especially given the various physical and emotional risks. (And particularly, I should add, when I eyeball the various revolting specimens the older one drags home.)

However, I’m also realistic, and I remember (vividly!) my own misspent youth. I’ve also seen the daughter of the highly "moral" woman who organized the high school’s abstinence rally become what the British so picturesquely call “the town bike”. So I recognize my daughters’ right to make their own choices, teach them as well as I can about their responsibilities to themselves and to others, and do everything I can to protect their health. And that includes thinking hard and investigating thoroughly before I get them vaccinations that may be ineffective and possibly dangerous.

So, all you journalists, rookie reporters, and bloggers (and our pediatrician too, for that matter) please knock it off with the insults and assumptions.


Leslie said...

Would you like to join me on my radio show to discuss the morality issue of Gardasil? We have been sharing information about the dangers of the vaccine - but have yet to hit this aspect.

Great job!

Afraid of Gardasil said...

If health not morality is the issue, what is your defense?

Kristin Johns said...

Leslie--sure, probably; send me an email at

Afraid: defense against Gardasil or against HPV? My defense against Gardasil is just not to give it to my kids (we do have that option!); my defense against HPV is to "strengthen the host", be cautious about behavior, (post 2/09/09) and to watch closely for developments in ointments containing carageenan and/or GML (post 3/10/09).