It's ironic, really: An outcry that for more than forty years has been ringing out among the "pro-choice" contingency is now on the lips of devout Catholics across the country. "Keep your laws off my (daughter's) body!" The issue, of course, is very different — the HPV vaccine, and whether it should be mandatory for school-aged girls.
I agree that this particular decision should be left up to parents, since even proponents of the vaccine admit that there has been insufficient testing. Although preliminary findings regarding the vaccine's effectiveness are encouraging, adverse reactions have been reported, including three deaths. Therefore parents may want to wait for more data before deciding whether to have their teens vaccinated.
Having said that, I believe that the very existence of this vaccine provides an opportunity for us as parents to talk with our children — not only about the vaccine itself, but about why they may benefit from its protection.
Presumably we have already taught our children that sex outside of marriage is morally wrong as well as spiritually, emotionally, and physically harmful. Even so, there are still serious reasons to consider this measure of protection — reasons having little or nothing to do with your child's resolve to remain chaste.
Protect What Is Worth Protecting
"Isn't vaccinating my child against STDs inconsistent with the 'save sex for marriage' message — sort of like preaching chastity while giving her a box of condoms?"
In a word, no. STDs are only the tip of a very large iceberg as far as the damaging consequences of extra-marital sex, and Gardacil is not a fail-proof safety net.
Initial reports about Gardacil suggest that this vaccine has the potential to eradicate four strains of HPV (Types 16 and 18, linked to 70% of cervical cancer cases; and Types 6 and 11, linked to 90% of genital wart cases). These two diseases lead to infertility or even death for thousands of women each year. According to a May 10 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, recently released data, based on a study of 15,000 women and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, show the vaccine was about 98 percent effective in preventing infection. The same article also reports that two USCF doctors have warned that the widespread use of the drug is not advised until more extensive studies are complete.
There is some question as to how long the vaccine is effective, with estimates ranging between 5-10 years — but it should be given before a girl becomes sexually active, keeping in mind that "sexually active" includes not only intercourse but any kind of intimate contact. Parents need to consider all these factors before deciding whether and at what age their daughter should receive the vaccine. Just as important, they must talk with their teenager about why they are being vaccinated. If parents communicate their reasons properly and thoroughly, the vaccine could be a tangible sign of love and support to a young woman as she enters adulthood.
How Safe Is She?
Parents who decide against giving their daughters the vaccine simply because it might encourage them to become sexually active, need to realize that withholding a shot is not an effective deterrent. Today's teens engage in all sorts of "sex play" short of intercourse to avoid pregnancy, and these "games" also transmit STDs that could destroy a young woman's fertility — or even her life. (This is true whether the girl contracts the disease on a date or as a virgin on her wedding night, if her husband has not been equally chaste.)
Having said all that, relying on the fear of sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy to keep children chaste is a risky proposition at best. As any grammar teacher will tell you, double negatives (urging someone NOT to do something to avoid a negative outcome) are never the strongest possible argument. There are far more convincing reasons to remain chaste.
The reasons we want our children to wait until they are married to experience sexual intimacy are far more beautiful, sacred, and complex. The "Theology of the Body" expresses with great candor and eloquence the sacred mysteries imprinted on the human body and one of our most important jobs as parents is to instill that sense of holy awe in our children. As Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, philosopher and author of The Privilege of Being a Woman, reminds us this divine imprint is expressed distinctively in the female, whose feminine organs are hidden and "veiled" with a hymen.
In the May 2007 issue of Canticle (www.canticlemagazine.com), Dr. Alice von Hildebrand elaborates on this profound mystery: "I would try to make [girls] aware at a very young age of this mystery in their body, that there is something very special about the female body precisely because it is veiled. It belongs to God. God has the keys, and nobody — nobody — is permitted into this mysterious garden except with the permission of God, given in the sacrament of matrimony."
Parents who teach their children the full beauty and truth of God's design for their sexuality have nothing to fear from a vaccine. However, there are still two important reasons to have our daughters protected with the HPV vaccine — protected not from their own impulses, but from the bad choices of others.
What If My Daughter Doesn't Date?
First, consider your daughter's future husband. Are you willing to bet your daughter's life — or her fertility — that he has never had any genital contact with another person prior to their wedding night? HPV can remain dormant for years, and those who carry the virus are not always symptomatic.
Depending on the length of their engagement, there may be time for your daughter to be vaccinated prior to the wedding — and if their engagement is for a year or more, and she remains absolutely chaste during that time, this may be the best solution. However, the vaccine is given in three injections over the course of six months, and the manufacturer indicates that Gardacil is unsafe for pregnant women. And so, it would seem prudent to arrange for the injection long before the safety of unborn grandchildren is a consideration.
The second reason to consider the vaccine for your daughter is even more ominous, and far more common than most parents want to consider: the prevalence of sexual assault. According to RAINN a woman in the United States is assaulted every 2.5 minutes. The U.S. Center for Disease Control reports that as many as one in five women is raped, most often before she is thirty. As a survivor of sexual assault, I can assure you that it happens even to modest, cautious, "good" girls — and the repercussions can last a lifetime.
Sadly, loving and caring parents who teach their daughters to remain chaste before marriage are often the last to hear about it if their daughter experiences this kind of trauma. Shame and misplaced guilt prevent up to 42% of rape victims from telling anyone what has happened to them. For nearly a decade I told no one what happened to me, afraid that my family would somehow think less of me. My parents loved and protected me as best they could, yet there were some things over which they had no control — and, as it turns out, neither did I. Wise parents need to consider that, having taught their daughters to make good choices, they also need to protect their girls from the bad choices of others. Fortunately, the HPV vaccine allows them to do just this.
What Should I Say to Her?
As Catholics, we believe that a woman's ability to give and nurture life is at the heart of her vocation, and that her reproductive health (to borrow another expression from the feminist camp) should be protected. Talk with your daughter about the vaccine and why she is receiving it. In this way you not only protect her physically, but also keep the lines of communication open so she knows that she can turn to you no matter what the future brings.
You may wish to tell her: "We have taught you what a beautiful thing it is to be a woman, and that God has designed sex as a sacred gift between a husband and wife. We want to do everything we can to be sure that your body stays healthy, for your sake and for the sake of the children you and your husband will have someday. These shots are just one way to protect your body — one of many choices that, with God's help and our guidance, you will need to make to stay healthy. As your parents, we want you to know that you can count on us to protect and help you — no matter what."