Parents demand school board uphold chastity in HPV vaccine policy

BY Teresa Pierre, PhD

TORONTO, November 4, 2013 Parents are demanding that the Halton Catholic District School Board maintain its ban of the HPV vaccine in schools when trustees debate the issue on November 5th.  Parents are upset that Trustees have tried to ram through a measure to allow public health officials to be able to administer the vaccine to girls at school.

 Parents As First Educators (PAFE) speaks for thousands of parents worried that offering the vaccine sends mixed messages to children about abstinence.  Many are also concerned that students will be able to obtain the vaccine without parental consent.  According to PAFE President Teresa Pierre, PhD, parents will be demanding Trustees don’t water down their policy to one that sends a mixed message on chastity.

 Pierre said the reason for Trustees to leave their policy in place is to support the value of chastity. “Parents believe that abstinence before marriage is the right thing to do,” she said. “They’re calling on Trustees to protect their choice not to vaccinate their children.”

 Pierre said parents in PAFE think Catholic schools offering kids the vaccine involves a type of doublespeak.

 “You can’t teach your children to value chastity while at the same time offering them a vaccine that prevents infection from a sexually transmitted disease. Catholic parents have confidence in teens’ willpower.”

 As reported in the Burlington Post on October 4, 2013 Trustee John Morrison tried to introduce a motion to approve distribution of the vaccine without any notice to the public.  After PAFE reported this to parents, hundreds objected to the lack of proper notice by signing an online petition supporting the vaccine ban.  The board then introduced a motion with proper notice.

Trustee Arlene Iantomasi told a board meeting on October 1 that school policy should reflect the reality that many teens are having sex.  According to the Burlington Post Iantomasi said “from what she has been reading it appears youths in their late teens are engaging in some sort of sexual activity. ‘To turn a blind eye to that… it’s up to the families to have that conversation,’ about the HPV vaccination.”  Pierre concurs that families need to have realistic conversations with their children about the value of abstinence, called by the US Centre for Disease Control “the most reliable way to avoid infection” but disagrees the onus should fall solely on parents.  “Nothing excuses the board from supporting chastity,” Pierre says. 

Some Catholic parents and Trustees support the vaccine because they think without it their daughters will end up getting cervical cancer. Pierre thinks they are buying into unsubstantiated claims about the vaccine’s ability to prevent cancer.  Pierre wonders if Trustees have been told that the Gardisil vaccine’s own lead researcher, Dr. Diane Parker, has retracted her support for the vaccine.  Parker said at a meeting in 2009 that the numbers of women who may end up getting cervical cancer from HPV is minute to begin with. 

The risks from side effects may in fact be greater than the risk of getting cervical cancer, said Dr. Parker. There have been reports of dangerous side effects, including Guillian Barré Syndrome, blindness, and strokes, while the long-term side-effects are still unknown. 

Most of those cases can be prevented with regular gynaecological exams, leading epidemiologist Abby Lippman of McGill University told Maclean’s Magazine.

Pierre points out that a sizeable proportion of young people are not engaging in sexual activity at all. For these children, the risks of such a vaccine – both physical and spiritual – far outweigh the benefits.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that chastity is indispensable for human happiness and freedom. “Either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.” (CCC 2339)

 Fr. Thomas Lynch recently issued a statement on the Halton HPV vaccine policy for Priests for Life.  Fr. Lynch is the group’s national director, and a former dean and current lecturer of moral theology at St. Augustine’s Seminary and the Toronto School of Theology at the University of Toronto.  Priests for Life is supporting the Halton Board’s current policy on the vaccine, because “it clearly reveals what our expectations about chastity are in the Catholic Church.”

Parents must be informed and make a conscious choice about what they want to do, says the Priests for Life statement.  If the vaccine were allowed in schools, parents could perceive there to be no need for deliberation.  Also emphasizing the importance of encouraging informed consent is Dr. Moira McQueen, LLB, MDiv, PhD, of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, a national centre for the study of Catholic bioethics at the University of Toronto.   

In a recent interview Dr. McQueen said, 

        “I think in these days of informed consent public health authorities should be more aware that parents should be treated like adults who can and should make             their own decisions, and not simply be expected to fill in yet another form from a school board or health authority, almost as a matter of routine,” she continued.         “This is a complex moral issue, and many parents are hesitating, not just Catholics. That shows it is not nearly as straightforward as public health officials                 would like it to be.”

Given that parents who want the vaccine can get it from their doctor, McQueen said “School boards do not NEED to be involved and there is no urgent need, such as a public health threat like a flu epidemic, for health authorities to use school premises.”

PAFE asks the Halton Catholic board to leave its policy just the way it is because in the words of Fr. Lynch “Your current policy respects the rights of parent to guide their children and form them spiritually, and it allows students to be taught to be responsible for their bodies and respectful of the bodies of others.”

Hundreds of Halton Catholic residents have been contacted about this and are calling and writing their Trustees.  Pierre pointed out the long term political ramifications of the vote, “The Catholic community is very upset about this and expects Trustees to preserve their Catholic values.  Trustee elections are less than a year away and hundreds of Catholic voters are paying very close attention to this vote on Tuesday.”