A pleasant surprise occurred in Texas politics this past weekend. For the first time, in a long time, Texas may be the first state to be proactive in an issue of public health.
Gov. Rick Perry has announced plans to require a vaccine for girls entering the sixth grade. The vaccine is effective in reducing cases of cervical cancer which are connected to the human papilloma virus. The plan produced immediate praise and criticism, but the roles are reversed. It is conservatives who are critical of Perry and Liberals who are ecstatic.
What is of interest to me will be the response of the religious community. Christianity has been notoriously backward and regressive in three areas; science, public health, and sexuality. This issue involves all three issues and therefore becomes the perfect storm for conservative religious groups. That Christian groups will oppose this seems to be a forgone conclusion, it is only the method of attack which remains a curiosity.
The most likely candidate for opposition includes the “abstinence proponents.” That could be me. I have two teenagers. I preach abstinence continually, but does my personal view make for good public policy? There are 400 girls in Texas who will get cervical cancer this year. These girls can be protected by a vaccine. Does not our Christian ethic demand that we take such a public health crisis seriously?
The fear is this: the presence of a preventive cure makes it more likely that people will engage in sexual behavior, especially at an early age. There are two options that have become adversarial. There are those who want to treat or prevent sexual related illnesses. There are those that provide abstinence as the only cure. Is there a solution where both ideas work in harmony?
I heard an ethicist tell a story of a local road called “Lover’s Lane.” Every town has one. This road dead ended at the top of a huge hill with a phenomenal view of the city. Young people would go to be inspired and kindle romantic urges.
There was a guard rail that protected the teens from going over the side. One night a rain washed the rail away. The next night dozens of teens plunged down the hill to their death or dire peril. The town people met. Christians argued that sexual desire was to blame.
Public health people argued that more ambulances were needed to treat the teens at the bottom of the hill: “Our children are bleeding and you want to preach abstinence? We need help now for our children.”
A wise man stood and said: “I have an idea. What if we encourage the preacher to begin talking to students about responsibility? What if we get the highway department to block the road until we can replace the guard rail? What if we called our neighbors and get ambulances and doctors right away?”
The wisdom is this: there is not any one solution that will fix the problem. Religious leaders should help people understand issues of responsibility for behavior. Government has a responsibility to protect and treat its citizens when there is an imminent threat to the population.
A good ethic demands both responses. Teaching abstinence is not enough. We are, at best naive, if we think that will solve this problem alone. We must keep our children from dying of cervical cancer.
Christians should be the first to applaud such a move from our governor. It might make up a little for our absolute silence in the AIDS crisis.
Ed Hogan is a public school teacher and ordained Baptist minister who lives in Houston, Texas. He served previously on the EthicsDaily.com / Baptist Center for Ethics board of directors.