The Guardian reported yesterday that some schools in England have opted out of the human papilloma virus (HPV) cervical cancer vaccination programme for girls on religious grounds. To add insult to injury, most of them are not informing their local GP of this decision, putting another barrier between their female pupils and this potentially life saving vaccination.
Since the introduction of the vaccination programme in late 2008, critics have been wrongly convinced that because HPV is linked to sexual activity, providing a vaccine will promote promiscuity. Rubbish! That's like suggesting cookery classes promote obesity. The vaccine can certainly play an important role in aiding discussion about being sexually responsible, but it can also be given without discussion of HPV transmission at all. When we had our Bacillus Calmette-Guérin BCG vaccinations as teenagers, how many of us were told just how TB is spread?
Some of the schools gave more detail to the media about their reasons behind their decision. One said, “It is not in keeping with the school ethos" though it is apparently in keeping with the ethos to expose girls to pointless and unnecessary health risks. Another school said, “Pupils follow strict Christian principles, marry within their own community and so do not practice sex outside of marriage."
While it may be that the schools hope their pupils won’t have sex outside of marriage, evidence would suggest it is often not the case in real life. As children grow up they develop their own set of beliefs and establish their own moral compasses. That may be to follow the religious path laid down for them, but it may not. To refuse to offer a vaccine that would protect girls from a life threatening illness is at best spectacularly thoughtless, at worst wilfully dangerous. It does not recognise that HPV can be passed on through non penetrative sexual acts such as intimate touching and petting. Neither does this position allow for a young person's independent growth or development. Very importantly it fails to recognise the more sinister circumstances of HPV transmission such as rape or sexual assault. And let’s not forget that it is possible to have sex with just one person, but to still be infected if that one person has the HPV virus – their husband for example.
It cannot be that the deeply held and adhered to religious principles of these schools are so fragile that a simple vaccine could jeopardise them. My experience is that most people of faith are not so blinkered. They want to protect their children physically, through vaccination, and emotionally by bringing them up within their own faith or moral framework. The two are not incompatible.
There is a high likelihood that as girls becomes women some of them will, at some point in their future, be exposed to the HPV virus that puts them at risk of cervical cancer. Is it morally right that they are denied an evidenced based vaccination against a life threatening disease simply because when they were girls, the adults with authority over them didn't feel comfortable with it?
Maybe the expressed conviction that the vaccine is not needed by these young people is actually a fear that offering them it may suggest an alternative perspective on their sexual identity and the relationships they may have in the future. Suddenly it is less about religion or ethos and more about a desire to control women's sexual behaviour.
Whatever the reason, denying girls this vaccination is wrong. Intellectually wrong. Emotionally wrong. Morally wrong.