The divergent religious and secular views of humanity collided recently in Alberta, Canada, where Catholic Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary is opposing mandatory Gardasil vaccinating of Catholic junior high school girls for Human Papilloma Virus, a sexually transmitted disease they can’t get if they remain chaste.
Never known to duck a challenge, Bishop Henry has fought gay human rights complainants to standstill and the Canadian government right to the Supreme Court of Canada. This week he lost, or half-lost, the sex-vaccination debate in the small city of Medicine Hat. There the Catholic school board has decided to allow HPV vaccinations at school without encouraging them. Students will bring home permission forms. Board chairman Peter Grad cautions parents not to sign these without thinking it through. “If they did that in this case,” he says, “it would be an abrogation of responsibility.” He hopes it will prompt “a meaningful parent-child talk about morality.”
Bishop Henry objects that the inoculation is self-defeating, but the province’s Catholic schools, one by one, have bowed to parental pressure, frightened by media coverage favoring a public health establishment led by Dr. John Meddings, head of the University of Calgary medical school.
Bishop Henry is ‘deplorable’?
Meddings termed Bishop Henry “deplorable…You are increasing the rate of spread of this virus in the population as a whole…Death rates, for both Catholics and non-Catholics, will increase as a consequence. I find it hard to appreciate the morality of this position.”
Henry, however, has laid out his position clearly enough. The public health “harm prevention” approach to sexual behavior is not immoral but it does fall far short of the Catholic view of sexuality, which Henry insists is supported by science: as evidence he cites the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada stating “Abstinence is the most efficient way to prevent HPV infection.”
People of liberal inclinations seem to find it inconceivable that encouraging no sex among youth produces fewer problems than encouraging “safer sex.” In fact, Henry is up against the same disbelief that Pope Benedict XVI encountered when he declared in 2009 that condoms wouldn’t solve Africa’s AIDS epidemic. As Edward Green of the Harvard AIDS Prevention Project explained at the time, the public health industry prefers technological fixes to behavioral change, and has a visceral hostility to church groups.
Why condoms don’t work in Africa
But the evidence is in. Wherever tried in Africa, a behavior-change model urging abstinence and marital fidelity has far outperformed campaigns that push condoms as the solution to AIDS, says Green. In fact condoms may do more harm than good: “One reason is ‘risk compensation’,” he writes. “That is, when people think they're made safe by using condoms at least some of the time, they actually engage in riskier sex.” Given that Gardasil is ineffective against 30 percent of HPV strains, might vaccination encourage teenagers to engage in sex more often – and dangerously? Might Bishop Henry be onto something?
- Broken Promises: How the AIDS Establishment has Betrayed the Developing World by Edward C. Green.