DALLAS — Texans are crying “foul” in reaction to a new mandate that girls entering sixth grade receive a vaccine against the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Gov. Rick Perry’s Feb. 3 executive order is meant to protect young women against the sexually transmitted disease, which can lead to cervical cancer.
The vaccine “provides us with an incredible opportunity to effectively target and prevent cervical cancer,” Perry said when announcing the order. “If there are diseases in our society that are going to cost us large amounts of money, it just makes good economic sense, not to mention the health and well-being of these individuals, to have those vaccines available.”
But his action is doing more than making the vaccine available — it is compelling girls to get it, and many parents see it as a usurpation of their rights. They say the growing reliance on such vaccines brings down yet another barrier against adolescents having sex.
Kay Cummins, a Dallas mother of five, feels the governor has interfered with her right as a parent to help their children grow in chastity.
“My objection is based on the usurping of parents’ rights to educate and form their children to make the right choices in life with regard to their sexuality without imposing a mandatory policy from the government that seeks to invade the privacy of the family and the parents’ rights to protect their children medically and morally,” said Cummins. She plans to refuse having her four daughters vaccinated.
The vaccination mandate, which is set to be implemented in the fall of 2008, will create a dilemma for families with young girls, Cummins predicted.
Bills have been introduced into at least a dozen states seeking mandated vaccinations for girls aged 11-12. Legislation is pending in California, Kentucky, New Jersey, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Similar bills in Maryland and Michigan have been either withdrawn or defeated.
Perry, however, bypassed the legislative process by issuing an executive order.
The vaccine was developed by Merck, and the Associated Press noted that Perry has ties with the pharmaceutical company. One of Merck’s three lobbyists in Texas is the governor’s former chief of staff, it said. His current chief of staff’s mother-in-law is the state director of Women in Government, the advocacy group that has accepted money from Merck, it continued. Perry himself received $6,000 from the drug company’s political action committee during his re-election campaign, the Associated Press pointed out.
Several pro-family and physician groups have argued against the mandate. They include groups such as the American College of Pediatricians, the Catholic Medical Association, Human Life International, the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Focus on the Family.
“We support the widespread availability of the vaccine, but we do oppose the mandatory vaccination for entry to public school,” said Linda Klepacki, an analyst for sexual health for the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Focus on the Family. “This is a disease that is sexually transmitted. We believe that parents should have the final say on whether to vaccinate their children.”
The vaccine, known as Gardasil, targets four of at least 100 types of HPV, focusing on two strains (HPV 16 and 18) that are responsible for approximately 70% of all cervical cancers. Human papillomavirus is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the country. Currently, up to 20 million Americans are infected with HPV, which translates into approximately one in four young adults.
The vaccine does not protect against other sexually transmitted diseases. Neither does it protect against 30% of cervical cancers caused by other HPV strains. It was approved by the FDA on June 8, 2006. It is administered in three injections over a six-month period. The FDA approved the vaccine for girls and women from ages 9 to 26, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended that the vaccine be routinely administered to girls starting at ages 11 and 12.
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America applauded that recommendation.
“We are extremely pleased by the HPV vaccination recommendations made … by the Advisory Committee," said Dr. Jeff Waldman, senior director of clinical services and medical education for Planned Parenthood. “We urge that states add HPV immunization to their school vaccination requirements.”
But Texas House Representative John Zerwas, who is a physician, argued against the mandate. He was quoted by the Lone Star Times saying, “To start, though HPV does present some serious health risks for women if left untreated, it does not present the same level of public health hazard as do the measles, mumps, rubella and whooping cough. There is a reason why vaccines for these other illnesses are mandated: they are contagious diseases that can be transmitted by virtue of an infected child walking in a classroom and breathing.”
He added that “HPV cannot be transmitted without sexual activity – and, therefore, does not constitute a public health threat to Texas’ schoolchildren while in the classroom.”
Human Life International President Father Tom Euteneuer agreed, describing the vaccine as a “chemical condom,” and argued that it will only lead to increased sexual activity.
“This vaccine perpetuates the mendacious ‘safe-sex’ culture that underscores the sexual revolution,” said Father Euteneuer in one of his weekly newsletters. “Thinking that this vaccine gives blanket protection against cervical cancer is like believing that 30 people jumping out of the same airplane will all be protected because one of them is wearing a parachute.”
Though the governor’s executive order contains an opt-out for parents who object to the vaccination, it is not clear yet whether Catholic schools will allow students to opt out. The majority of the dioceses in the state do not allow parents to seek the state’s conscience exemption for vaccinations, which has caused some concern in the past.
Many childhood vaccinations, such as those against polio, hepatitis A and B, measles, mumps and rubella, as well as the adult vaccine for shingles, are derived from the cell lines of aborted babies. The babies were aborted voluntarily.
The Church permits the use of these vaccines when no ethically-derived alternatives are available, but it also allows parents to exercise a conscientious objection in refusing them as long as it can be done without causing a significant risk of health to others.
The Diocese of Dallas is one of 12 in the state that do not accept the state’s conscience exemption, unless a physician determines that for medical or neurological reasons a child should not be immunized.
The dioceses do not allow opt-outs because of the danger that a student infected with rubella, for example, might infect the unborn child of a pregnant schoolteacher, possibly causing serious birth defects.
Though Gardasil is not derived from aborted fetuses, some parents are wondering if the dioceses will allow the opt-out the state is allowing.
“At the moment we do not have a position on this,” said Margaret McGettrick, director of education for the Texas Catholic Conference. “Our bishops are currently convening in Dallas to discuss this,” she said, referring to the National Catholic Bioethics Center Workshop for Bishops Feb. 5-8.
But perhaps it won’t matter much. Brian Rooney, spokesman for the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Thomas More Law Center, said the executive order’s opt-out is empty.
“The governor made it seem as if he supports parental rights, but if you read the language of the opt-out you see that the parent has to apply for approval through the State Department of Health Services. The bureaucracy will read your affidavit and determine whether you have a conscience objection or not,” said Rooney. “We’ve found such affidavits to be ripe for corruption. The opt-out is really a canard.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.