To say the bill caused controversy is an incredible understatement: Religious conservatives decried the bill as more proof of our morally bankrupt and sex-crazed society. Parents raged about how more of their parental freedoms were being taken away by the big, bad government. Everywhere else in California however, minors became safer from an increasingly widespread and harmful disease.
Truly, the threat of HPV is real. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in America. An estimated 20 million Americans — 50 percent of sexually active adults — have HPV. Most of the 12,000 annual cases of cervical cancer, which often cause infertility and as many as 4,000 deaths, happen as a direct result of HPV infection. And the disease causes a cocktail of other cancers, including cancer of the anus, penis, vagina, vulva and oropharynx.
But it’s not the vaccine itself that’s infuriating critics. The wave of outrage stems from the fact that 12-year-olds — normally seen as too young to be having sex and thus having sexual diseases — are assumed to be seen by the government as of a ripe age for performing the horizontal mambo. In the words of Paul Rondeau, director of communications for American Life League: “The known medical risks and controversy demonstrate the true nature of this legislation: Sexual zealots in Californian politics believe that 12-year-old boys and girls are sexual animals that have no need or ability to control their own behavior.”
But it wasn’t because of any assumption preteens were christening the bedsheets that our “sexual zealots” passed AB 499. No, the reason this vaccine is available to minors as young as 12 years old is because of other reasons.
“Ideally, females should get the vaccine before they become sexually active and exposed to HPV,” the CDC website states. “This is because they may have already gotten one or more of HPV types targeted by the vaccines.” In other words, the vaccine is meant for when it’s the most effective: as a preventative measure, not after sexual activity has begun.
Then there’s that other notion — that the big, bad government is stepping on the inalienable American freedoms of parents. During a recent Republican debate, Michele Bachmann spoke about a similar Texas law forcing “innocent little 12-year-old girls to have a government injection.” Anger at government intervention — especially in cases where parental freedoms are limited — is commonplace in our society.
So while we’re at it, let’s talk about a few of those other government interventions: When the Top Ramen flambé you were cooking lights your kitchen on fire, government-paid firefighters drive shiny government-owned fire trucks to put it out. When burglars break into your house and steal your entire “Jersey Shore” collection, government-paid police officers attempt to find and prosecute the criminals responsible. The list goes on and on. The bottom line is, it’s the government’s responsibility to protect us from injury, death and disease. And hell, the fact you’re even reading this column is proof enough they do a pretty good job of it.
I believe parents should have a role in the health of their children. But I find it hopelessly unrealistic for minors as young as 12 years old to approach their parents about their future sexual health. Call me nuts, but I don’t see that conversation going well with the average set of parents. What is more likely to happen is for the minors to risk it if and when they become sexually active. And therefore, the cycle of HPV — which condoms fail to completely protect against — spirals onward.
And finally, the great and powerful rhetoric machine’s favorite argument against the HPV vaccine: Gardasil is unsafe. Appearing on the “Today Show,” Bachmann presented her belief of the drug’s “dangerous side effects” based on a conversation she had with a mother, who blamed the vaccine for causing “mental retardation” in her daughter. Some sources have even blamed the drug for causing Lou Gehrig’s Disease and a host of other complications. The belief the HPV vaccines cause mental and neurological diseases is not only scientifically unfounded, it’s rooted in fiction entirely. In fact, the CDC has stated the vaccines carry “no serious safety concerns.” It is exactly because of this false belief, however, that many parents hold back their child from receiving the vaccine. This rhetoric machine has proven itself more harmful than the drug itself.
Do I value the right of parents to make decisions for their children? Absolutely. But I also value the minors’ right to protect themselves from harm — sexual or otherwise. Even more importantly, I value the ability to have children with my future wife — whoever she may be — and for her to live free of cervical cancer. That freedom is real. And who knows? We may have the sexual zealots to thank for that.