If I have any strengths as a parent, which I often doubt, one of my favorites is my near constant attempts to see all sides of a debate. Even if I disagree with a position, I try to understand any reasonable arguments for the other side. I do this partly to know how to counter their points, but mostly so that I can explain controversial things to my daughter without always giving away what I think.
It’s a lot like when she was younger, and we would try to not wince when we ate foods we didn’t like in front of her, so that she didn’t pick up our culinary prejudices.
We always want her to make up her own mind, and it’s easier for us to find out what she thinks when she doesn’t know what we think. Depending on her , that might mean an automatic embrace of or rejection of our position, just to please or annoy us.
So we try to present a blank slate to her on a lot of topics. And I’ve come, right or wrong, to think of myself as pretty moderate because of that. When you spend a lot of time listening to the craziness on the fringes of any impassioned issue, you can start to feel pretty sensible.
This is why I am so appalled to have an instant, unthinking, knee jerk reaction to the HPV vaccine controversy.
For those parents who think this is an old issue, the recent FDA approval of Truvada as an HIV prevention drug seems to have started this topic up again in many mommy circles. And for those of you who don’t know about this issue, there are two relatively new vaccines—Gardasil and Cervarix—that prevent human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer. The vaccines are recommended for girls at about age 11, in order to assure that they receive full protection long before they become sexually active.
There seem to be three main positions against the vaccine. That it is inappropriate to mandate it, as it is related to sex, and thus is a more sensitive and moral issue than other vaccines. That it might be dangerous; there are stories of kids dying after they got the vaccine. And that it’s icky to think about 11-year-old girls and sex at the same time.
My instinctive response to each of these is to immaturely say “Bah!” and wave my hands.
I want to be a grown up about this, so I will try to express actual reasons why I disagree with these positions.
I do understand that many people have different beliefs about sexuality than I do. For people for whom sex before marriage is the most horrible thing imaginable, I suppose that vaccinating against an STD can seem like giving their kid swim lessons. Yes, it makes her less likely to drown, but it certainly does make it more likely that she’ll go swimming. This is the belief system that makes the Truvada news less than wonderful to some people.
I can’t argue with this position logically, because I don’t think it’s about logic. The Jiminy Cricket on their shoulder will nag them for life if their kid has sex without a ring. Mine will sob if my kid gets cancer that I could have prevented. It’s not a right or wrong issue. It’s a values issue. What makes your Jiminy go nuts is very personal.
But even where the vaccine is mandated, it has the same possibility of exemption that every vaccination has. You have to vaccinate for an awful lot of things in order to put your kid in public school. Unless you don’t want to. Then you fill out a form and you don’t. It’s pretty straightforward. So the “freedom to uphold my values” argument fails for me.
The “It’s maybe dangerous” argument falls prey to science. The Institute of Medicine and the CDC have both independently looked into the reported deaths and found absolutely no cause and effect connection with the vaccines.
I know this is not convincing to some people. But I have a hard time hold back my hand-waving when clinical evidence is dismissed. It’s a personal failing.
The “ick factor” argument is the hardest to argue against. Who wants to look at our innocent little preteen girls and think about them doing the kinds of things that would give them HPV? Surely they could be safely vaccinated at 16. Or 25. Or as part of the wedding ceremony. That’s early enough for my little angel, right?
The thing is, being a parent means thinking about sex before your kids do. And we don’t know for sure when that first thought will happen, or that first act occur, whether by intent or—heaven forbid—by abuse. If we want to prevent something bad coming from sex, we have to act before the sex, and the most straightforward way of doing that is to aim it early. Very early. Ridiculously early. And that means before puberty, which means talking about prepubescent girls and sex in the same breath.
It’s not the same as talking about them having sex right now, but I very much understand how it can feel that way.
There are no easy answers. There are many other things to discuss. Some dislike how strong the drug company’s voices have been in the FDA process. Some are confused as to why boys are excluded when they can get HPV as well. Some note that the vast majority of women with HPV do not get cervical cancer, so thinking of it as a cancer vaccine is misleading.
All good points. Ones I hope to think about more deeply. But unless the data changes dramatically, my daughter will get her vaccine on her 11th birthday, or whenever her pediatrician tells us to. My Jiminy says so. I only hope that if people ask me why we did it, I will have a better response than just “Bah!”