The XX Factor

Government Should Mandate the HPV Vaccine

Photo by MIKHAIL MORDASOV/AFP/Getty Images

Laura Bassett at the Huffington Post has an excellent, must-read rundown of the whole controversy over the HPV vaccine that’s been stirred up with Michele Bachmann’s ignorant statements about it. I wish everyone would read this; it addresses much of the confusion that has leaked into the public because the abstinence-only fanatics have been studiously spreading misinformation. I’ve been alarmed at how many liberals I’ve spoken to, online and off, who heard from somewhere that the vaccine is “untested” and that it’s somehow less safe than every other vaccine on the market. In reality, it’s been shown to be, both in medical tests and in the information gathered from widespread vaccination, that it’s as safe as other vaccines. That’s the power that the rumor mill can have when it comes to things like this; it can create unease in people who may balk at a more blatant argument that you deserve to get HPV if you aren’t a virgin who marries a virgin (and that apparently means a “kissing” virgin as well).

The most damage that the right wing rumor mill has done to the HPV vaccine is they’ve managed to convince people, even liberals, that the vaccine is somehow a ceremonial introduction to adult sexuality. But from what I understand, the rationale for giving it to 6th graders was that it’s a young enough age that it doesn’t have to be that.  (There’s also some medical reasons that involve maximizing the effectiveness of it.) We’re still in the habit in this country of thinking that sexual health care and self-awareness should start after sexual initiation, especially for women. It’s getting better than it used to be in many ways; for instance, the notion that virgins can’t use tampons, which was widespread when I was young, seems to have declined significantly. It also used to be typical for teenagers to lose their virginity and then start considering their contraceptive strategy, but now the majority of teenagers use some kind of contraception the first time they have sex. Conservative fears that virgins familiarizing themselves with contraception and having condoms on themselves in case they want to have sex would increase the rate of teenage sexual activity have been proven completely wrong. The Guttmacher Institute has demonstrated that kids are actually waiting longer for sex than they did in the past. I suspect that sending the message that sex is something you plan for, instead of something that you do spontaneously and then deal with, probably influences the decision to wait longer.

Because HPV is widespread, nearly inevitable if you’re not vaccinated, and has the potential to create medical problems or even kill you, it really should be mandated.  I prefer as a rule to err on the side of freedom, but when it comes to public health issues, the government often has to get involved. Human beings struggle to weigh the risks and benefits of certain choices already—which is why we have lung cancer, unintended pregnancy, and nutrition-related diseases—and it only gets worse when you introduce the argument that you should participate in a behavior for the common good as well as your own. That’s why we have laws against drunk driving and speeding, because people foolishly tend to think of their driving choices as an individual issue, instead of a common good one. Same with vaccinations. History has shown that people overrate the dangers of getting them, underrate the dangers of not getting them, and blow off their responsibilities not to spread disease (or at least have blanched at the idea that they should suffer a minor pinprick in order to help establish herd immunity). Unfortunately, the only real way to protect the populace against disease is mandating vaccinations, because human nature isi flawed in such a way that voluntary vaccinations just don’t cut it. History also shows that, by and large, the populace stops resisting mandates soon after they’re put into place, probably because their worst fears don’t come to pass and they simply forget they were worried in the first place. So it should be with HPV. Mandating it will result in a negative result of nothing, taking the steam out of right wing fear-mongering.