Are there moral grounds for compulsory HPV vaccination? Joseph E. Balog, PhD, MSHYG, certainly thinks so. In an article in the April 2009 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, Balog concludes that compulsory HPV vaccination is not only morally justified, it’s a social justice issue.
Some are opposed to compulsory HPV vaccination because they are concerned that vaccinating teens for an STI could be seen as condoning or encouraging sexual activity, undermining abstinence messages and providing a false sense of security about protection from STIs. The scientific community is also skeptical of compulsory vaccination, arguing that the mortality rates of cervical cancer are too low to be considered an “imminent harm” and that the benefits might not outweigh the financial costs, as well as the costs to individual liberty.
Balog argues the “rightness” or “wrongness” of compulsory HPV vaccination should be determined by key ethical principles: whether vaccination would reduce harm to individuals and society, and whether vaccination would produce benefits that are at least as good as the alternatives for prevention of death and disease.
HPV meets the standards for compulsory vaccination
In addressing the concern that mortality rates of cervical cancer are too low to be considered an “imminent harm,” Balog argues that HPV still meets the precedent set by other diseases for which we mandate vaccination, such as polio and measles. The risk of a fatal outcome from HPV is relatively low, but it is still comprable to that of polio or measles. The HPV vaccine fits comfortably within the precedent already set for compulsory vaccination.
Eradicating disease trumps the preservation of social ideas
Balog rightly points out that the conservative folks who oppose HPV vaccination because they believe it might promote sexual behavior are more concerned with upholding moral values than they are with preventing real, physical harm. From a public health perspective, prevention of harm is the first priority, especially considering the fact that the types of prevention offered as alternatives to vaccination (abstinence) have been been studied and proven to be ineffective. As Balog argues, it would be wrong to deny teens a real solution in order to uphold a symbolic ideal.
A child’s human rights override parental rights
The law generally respects and protects parental rights over their children. But when it comes to the health and safety of the child, the state may sometimes step in. When it comes to child vaccinations, the state generally upholds the child’s right to healthcare. Since the health threat of HPV affects the child directly and the parent only indirectly, the right of the child to receive the vaccine outweighs parental autonomy. We don’t often think of it this way, but from Balog’s point of view, access to preventative healthcare, like vaccination, is a human right. Of course, any compulsory vaccination program must follow the legal precedent that includes the right of states to allow individuals with medical, religious, and philosophical objections to opt-out. A compulsory HPV vaccine would, of course, include these exceptions.
Compulsory vaccination is a social justice issue
I’m not sure if you’ve seen the ads for Gardasil (the first HPV vaccine on the market), but they are clearly directed to white, middle class women. The reality is, however, that there are huge racial and economic inequalities in rates of cervical cancer and cervical cancer screenings. In the US, incidence of cervical cancer is 50% higher among African American women and 66% higher in Latina women than in white women. While they have the greatest risk, these groups are the least likely to receive cervical cancer screenings (PAP smears) and are also the least likely to get vaccinated. A voluntary vaccination program does not guarantee universal access; the vaccine is prohibitively expensive without health insurance coverage. Public health professionals understand that mandates are not only the most effective way to ensure that the disadvantaged women have access to the vaccine, but also the most effective means of protecting these women from cervical cancer.
Just like children faced the threat of polio in the 1950s, our adolescents are in need of protection against HPV and the array of cancers it can cause. Withholding that protection is unethical, and supporting abstinence as an alternative is both unrealistic and ineffective. But making the HPV vaccine available on a voluntary basis is not enough. It is only with a compulsory vaccination program that all adolescents, regardless of their parent’s values, race, socio-economic background or insurance status, will have real access to the vaccine. Then, and only then, will cervical cancer prevention reach the groups that really need it.