More than 20 million people in the U.S. alone have HPV, a sexually transmitted infection that can and has lead to sometimes fatal cervical cancer. The vaccination, Gardasil, prevents the most common four strains of HPV but leaves the recipient of the vaccination unprotected against 36 other strains. It can greatly reduce the likelihood of cervical cancer and genital warts caused by HPV.
But do parents who vaccinate their children risk sending a mixed message about the importance of abstinence? As a father who wants to encourage his children to live chaste lives, what should I do?
Obviously, it is a good thing for parents to protect their children from diseases. But do parents who teach their children that sex is reserved for marriage risk sending a mixed message when they have them vaccinated with Gardasil to protect against HPV? In a similar discussion of condom use, moral philosopher and theologian Germain Grisez suggested that trying to mitigate the bad effects of unethical choices we risk suggesting that our children are “unable to avoid sexual immorality.”
Might not the same argument be made against vaccinating to reduce the likelihood of HPV?
One simple solution would be to lie, to tell the child that he or she was receiving a vaccine not for an STI, but for an infection that could be transmitted by a mere cough or touch. The problem, of course, is that it is no more acceptable to lie to one’s children than to seem to condone evil. What is a conscientious parent to do?
I would like to suggest a way out. Parents should vaccinate their children for HPV, but they should not tell them precisely the nature of the vaccination. Likewise, parents should instruct the doctors and nurses involved not to tell their children exactly what this vaccination is for. In this way, the children are physically better protected, but at the same time no mixed message is sent. Both physical health and moral health are preserved.
Parents could avoid lying by simply telling their child, “You need another vaccination in order to prevent possible future diseases,” and leave it at that. This is not a lie. In the event that a child inquires which diseases, the parent could say, “the Human papillomavirus” or “four different strains of a virus, but I don’t know the medical names for each strain,” and leave it at that. These statements are also not lies, since nothing false was said.
There is no obligation to tell the full truth in situations in which speaking the fullness of the truth is not in the best interest of others. In this case, there is no obligation to explain exactly what kinds of health problems this vaccination prevents, and exactly how one could get this disease, particularly since in these circumstances it could lead to the children becoming confused about parental expectations with respect to sexual behavior. Similarly, with most other vaccinations, children are not generally told precisely which diseases they are receiving vaccinations against nor exactly how one might contract the disease. Ideally, the HPV vaccination could take place with other standard medical care.
What if one truly expects that one’s child will live chastely both before and after marriage? Why bother with the vaccination? Even if the children do not know, does not getting the vaccination for their children compromise parents who would know the nature of the vaccination? Wouldn’t this lead to a lessening of parental expectations which itself damages children?
Germain Grisez highlights the danger of parents who begin to expect less of their children:
[A]mong the important things parents need to communicate to their children—in addition to the truth of faith that with God’s grace every Christian can avoid evil and become holy—are that the parents are confident this is true of their children and expect it of them. Your son is not an animal driven by sexual instinct; though subject to temptation as all of us are, he is a person, rational and free. If you think of him and deal with him as if he were not, you will deprive him of the respect you owe him. That will undermine his self-respect and your relationship with him.”
Does a vaccination against HPV, even if the child is not aware of the nature of the STI, undermine the confidence, expectations, and respect that parents owe their children?
Not necessarily. Even if a son or daughter is perfectly chaste, this child can still contract HPV in a variety of ways through no fault of his or her own. Most obviously, HPV could be contracted through a case of sexual assault.
Sexual assault can happen to anyone, including canonized saints such as Maria Goretti. Secondly, one’s son or daughter may marry someone who has HPV and be exposed to HPV in this way. So, parents may have their children receive the HPV vaccination without undermining the confidence, expectations, and respect that parents owe their children.
Christopher Kaczor is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount and the author of The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice (Routledge 2011).