When it comes to teen sex, all parents hope and pray that their children make wise choices. Children as young as 12 or 13 weigh decisions with consequences that could impact the rest of their lives in a dramatic way. At this point in the conversation our teenage children roll their eyes, but parents know the risks to be real.
Parental anxiety therefore is unavoidable, all the more so because they realize that the ultimate choices their teens make about sex are beyond their control. That begs a question: If a child violates the moral code that parents set, are those parents willing to put their child’s life in mortal danger? Tragically, some Christians are willing to answer, “Yes.”
A little-known debate is smoldering at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that may burst soon into a major fire. Two pharmaceutical companies–Merck and GlaxoSmithKline–have designed a cervical cancer vaccine.
In clinical trials the Merck drug, Gardasil, is proving to be up to 100-percent effective in fighting the dominant strain of the virus causing cervical cancer. The pharmaceutical companies and a growing movement of public-health advocates want all girls to be inoculated with the vaccine as they presently are for other high-risk viruses.
The Family Research Council is leading a charge of Religious Right groups to halt any such national inoculation program. Their resistance is driven by fear more than common sense.
The human papilloma virus (HPV) that generates cervical cancer is most typically passed along through genital contact with others. So as long as an individual does not engage in sexual intercourse, he or she should be shielded from the virus. The Religious Right bloc concludes that offering a vaccine for HPV would undercut their promotion of sexual abstinence for adolescents.
In that spirit, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told Fortune magazine that he would not allow his 13-year-old daughter to be inoculated. “It sends the wrong message,” Perkins said. “Our concern is that this vaccine will be marketed to a segment of the population that should be getting a message about abstinence.”
Globally, cervical cancer kills more than 270,000 women each year–roughly 80 percent of them in developing countries. The Centers for Disease Control reports that as many as 3,700 women in the U.S. died of cervical cancer last year, and tens of thousands more had their lives completely transformed by a radical treatment regimen for the disease. The majority of those women are African-American or Hispanic, and poor.
Religious Right groups are not seeking to ban the drug. They simply do not want the vaccine to be slotted as an inoculation that every child receives as they presently do for polio and smallpox.
Because these groups link cervical cancer so intimately with illicit sexual activity, a mandated vaccination feels to them like a family values choice would be imposed upon them by the state.
We abide by public health standards for the sake of the common good, of course. In the U.S., we require motorists to wear seat belts and children to be inoculated. It would be equally shortsighted to oppose a vaccine for HIV if one existed. So the question here is whether the transmission of HPV is a universal public health risk. The question of state imposition is a straw man argument.
But more importantly, the Religious Right is wrong to so closely tie cervical cancer to promiscuity. A woman might be chaste her entire life, then marry and pick up the virus from her husband.
It also is more than a bit naive to believe that a child will abandon abstinence once they have received a vaccine. If a teen’s only deterrent for engaging in sexual activity is a fear of communicable diseases, they are likely to turn to sex with protective devices.
I would go a step further and challenge the Religious Right to temper their moral commitments with grace. It is the right and duty for parents to set a moral path for their children. It pains me that so many parents abdicate that responsibility. But we also offer protection and mercy for lapses in judgment.
It is a daring journey raising children. It is our role to guide, model and protect. Parents teach values, but kids make the decisions. I would hope that love and grace await our children at each destination.