PORT ST. JOE, Fla. — Seventeen-year-old Simone Davis of Port St. Joe, Fla., is like most teenage girls. She enjoys school and is active in her church’s youth group. But while her senior class peers at Port St. Joe High School fuss over which club to join or who will be elected homecoming queen, Davis is battling for her religious freedom and the right to stay in the country.
Born in Colchester, England, she has lived in the U.S. for the last 10 years as a resident alien and recently applied for full U.S. citizenship. This summer the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services informed Davis that her application for citizenship would not be processed unless she received the Gardasil vaccination.
Manufactured by Merck and Co., Gardasil is a vaccine designed to prevent infection from certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV). A sexually transmitted disease, HPV can cause cervical cancer in women and venereal warts in men and women.
Gardasil was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration for public use in 2006, and nearly 40 million doses of it have been given worldwide to girls as young as 9.
The vaccine is controversial, with watchdog groups like the National Vaccine Information Center reporting that Gardasil has a high rate of serious side effects, including fainting, seizures, blood clots and death.
Davis is a committed Christian and has promised her Baptist congregation that she will remain chaste until marriage. As such, she felt that there was no reason to subject herself to the potential dangers of Gardasil. With the help of her adoptive mother, Jean, who was also born in England but is a naturalized U.S. citizen, Davis applied to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services for a waiver from the Gardasil requirement. In August, she and her mother received a letter from the bureau, denying the waiver. She had 30 days to file an appeal.
In an interview with the Register, Jean Davis expressed her astonishment at the bureau’s response. “When I received that letter from Immigration Services, I asked, ‘How could this be happening in America?’ They say that this is the land of the free, but my parental rights are being taken away, and I am not even free to choose for my own child.”
In addition to the deadline, the Davises were told that they must pay a $500 appeals fee in addition to the $1,700 they have already paid for the citizenship application process. If the appeal is denied, the teenager would not be eligible for citizenship for several years and could be deported.
Attempts to contact the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services concerning the case have been unsuccessful.
Not long after their story spread through the media, the Davises received a call from Joel Oster, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based legal organization that defends the right of religious expression.
“We got involved with this case because what you have is an individual who is being denied citizenship, is being asked to violate her religious beliefs in order to become a citizen, when the same requirement is not being placed on any other American citizen,” Oster said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that all girls and young women between the ages of 9 and 26 receive Gardasil. Based on this recommendation, the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services adopted a policy that requires all female applicants for U.S. citizenship to receive the vaccination.
Responding to the question of whether this policy was aimed at public health and not religious expression, Oster said, “The ironic thing here is that the law does provide a waiver from a vaccination requirement if taking that vaccination would violate someone’s religious beliefs. Our client sought out such a waiver on religious grounds … but was denied that exemption because in essence she was not opposed to all immunizations.”
Beyond what is certainly part bureaucratic boondoggle, some see Davis’ plight as the result of a cynical and paternalistic medical culture that assumes that all young women will be sexually active and therefore pushes them to accept contraceptives and Gardasil.
“Over the last 40 years, women have been dismantled and destroyed by a contraceptive medical establishment,” says Dr. John Littell, a natural family planning-only family practitioner in Kissimmee, Fla., who incorporates obstetrics in a practice of some 8,000 patients seen at his clinic and four area hospitals. Littell, a past president of the Catholic Medical Association and founder of Family Physicians for Life, counsels his patients not to receive Gardasil.
“The benefits do not warrant the risks,” he said. “The only cause of cervical cancer is HPV, and HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, which can be avoided by practicing abstinence. … No woman in the U.S. should die of cervical cancer. With a routine gynecological procedure called a Pap smear, precancerous cells can be readily detected and the precancerous condition treated effectively.”
Faith in the Future
While not downplaying any cancerous condition, Littell points out that there are only 2,000 to 3,000 deaths annually in the U.S. from cervical cancer. Of those, he said, “The overwhelming majority are made up of women who do not avail themselves of routine medical care, be that a Pap smear or anything else.”
On Sept. 24, Oster filed an appeal with the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services on behalf of Davis. While the bureau could take up to a year to respond to the filing, Oster notes that “this case is very important. The government should not be requiring one potential citizen to violate her religious beliefs in order to become a citizen. That is a very dangerous precedent.”
In the meantime, Jean Davis is comforted by her faith.
“I am very encouraged,” she said. “I feel God is moving. Simone knows that I would not let them take her. We answer to God, and if it is not his will for us to stay here, we would go, though we have nowhere to go.”
Jeff Gardner writes
from Onalaska, Wisconsin.