Parental Rights Seen as Heart of Controversy on HPV Vaccine

California Archbishop Laments New Law

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By Kelly Luttinen

LOS ANGELES, OCT. 13, 2011 (Zenit.org).- The archbishop of Los Angeles says that a new law permitting 12-year-olds to get a vaccination against cervical cancer is a “serious erosion of parental rights in California.”

Last Sunday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a measure that allows children as young as 12 to get the HPV vaccine without parental consent. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the leading cause of cervical cancer and it is transmitted through sexual contact.

The archbishop of Los Angeles, José Gómez, lamented the new measure because he said that children as young as 12 shouldn’t be asked to make medical decisions without parental support.

“Children are not mature enough to think through the consequences of complicated medical decisions,” he said. “As a result of this law, children will now face these decisions without parental guidance — and likely under pressure from adults and corporate interests that have financial and other motives to promote these medications.

Green light?

Much of the controversy surrounds the Gardasil vaccine, given to prevent certain strains of the human papillomavirus.

Catholic radio show host and author Teresa Tomeo made the claim that giving the HPV vaccine to young girls is the same as giving them permission to engage in sexual activity. Others such as Randy Thomasson, a spokesperson for conservative watchdog group SaveCalifornia.org, interpreted it in the same vein, as encouragement to engage in sexual activity.

Others disagree.

“With this vaccine we are talking about something else entirely,” said Cathy O’Connell Cahill, senior editor of U.S. Catholic. “The vaccine is suggested for 12 year olds because, in fact, yes, a certain percentage of them will soon be sexually active.”

She continued, however: “The HPV vaccine protects even those young women who will not have sex until their wedding night! (…) The HPV vaccine protects our girls whether they have sex for the first time at 16 or 36. Are people seriously suggesting that parents should pass up the vaccine because they think their child will see it as some kind of permission to become sexually active?”

Money matter?

Chairman of Catholics for the Common Good, William May, pointed to another issue, warning of “squandering resources, as well as undermining families.” 

He said 73% of teens who sign up to receive the Gardasil vaccine never complete the series of three shots. To be effective, the vaccine is administered in three doses over a three month period, costing about $120 each.

In response to those who have called the drug “dangerous,” the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement saying: “Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Family Physicians all recommend that girls receive HPV vaccine around age 11 or 12. That’s because this is the age at which the vaccine produces the best immune response in the body, and because it’s important to protect girls well before the onset of sexual activity. In the U.S., about 6 million people, including teens, become infected with HPV each year, and 4,000 women die from cervical cancer. This is a life-saving vaccine that can protect girls from cervical cancer.”

Rick Perry, Texas Governor and presidential candidate, went so far as to mandate the vaccine for all young girls in his state, then later called this decision a mistake.

Big decisions

The drug is not without its risks, and the decision whether or not to receive it should be made carefully, says gynecologist Dr. Daniel Greene, who works at Crittenton Hospital and Medical Center in Rochester, Michigan.

Greene suggested to ZENIT that the real issue in the California legislation is that children do not have the decision-making ability to weigh the risks versus benefits of such health care decisions. Echoing the misgivings of Archbishop Gómez, the doctor noted that all vaccines, including Gardasil, have inherent risks, from minor side effects such as pain and swelling at the injection site or fainting, to more serious effects in some reports such as neurologic complications or a higher risk of blood clots formation.

“Studies have not revealed yet whether these more serious side effects are directly attributable to the vaccine, but there is a potential link and this needs to be considered as part of the informed consent process,” he said.

According to Greene, all the best study results on the effects of Gardasil were done in teens age 16 and older, and the data was then “extrapolated” for ages 9 through 26. 

“Studies show the younger a person receives it, the more robust the immune response, so I understand the reasons they want to do this, but this is not the way to go,” the doctor said. “A 12-year-old child can’t decide the risks and benefits of such a decision. They don’t have the level of decision-making skills necessary. I can tell a 12-year-old the risks and benefits, and they are not going to get it.”

He pointed out that the influenza virus “kills more people than HPV ever will.” 

“So then,” he asked, “why does a 12-year-old need parental permission to get a flu shot?”

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