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FIRST-PERSON: Protecting our girls (part 2)

DALLAS (BP)–Texas Governor Rick Perry issued an executive order this month requiring girls entering the sixth grade in Texas public schools to receive Gardasil, Merck & Co.’s new vaccine against certain strains of the Human Papilloma Virus that cause 70 percent of the cases of cervical cancer.

The mandate, which takes effect for the school year beginning in 2008, has created a firestorm of conservative protest citing parental rights concerns. Kelly Shackelford, president of the Texas-based Free Market Foundation, a policy arm of Focus on the Family, told the Dallas Morning News, “I haven’t seen this kind of explosion in the grassroots for a number of years.”

This may or may not be a done deal in Texas. Twenty-six of 31 Texas state senators signed a letter asking the governor to withdraw the order. One of the signors is the author of a bill requiring the vaccine who sees this as a matter for the legislature, not gubernatorial edict. My guess is that Gov. Perry, a Republican, took this action because he doubted Texas lawmakers would enact a requirement for the vaccine. The legislature has created, in recent years, a climate friendly to parental rights, emphasizing abstinence education. But the governor remains unmoved by the protests.

Merck is spending millions to promote HPV vaccine mandates in every state, working in part through an activist organization called Women in Government, made up of female state legislators. The specter of cervical cancer is a powerful motivator for these requirements, and 18 states are currently considering them. But it’s important to add some perspective, since this will be debated in statehouses across the country:

1. The benefit from this vaccine accrues to those women and girls who choose to be sexually active. HPV is not airborne; it is transmitted sexually.

2. According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 90 percent of HPV cases are harmless and go away without treatment. Although a worldwide problem, with annual PAP testing, cervical cancer and related deaths are decreasing in the United States. The most frequent result of HPV is genital warts, a treatable condition.

3. We do not know the long-term side effects of the vaccine. The testing period lasted four years and included only women in the 16 to 26 age group. During that period the National Vaccine Information Center recorded adverse reactions of severe headaches, dizziness, temporary loss of vision and lost consciousness. For sexually active women, this vaccine is a wise risk. It’s a bad idea for 12-year-old virgins.

4. The length of effectiveness of the vaccine is not yet known. Estimates are 3.5 to 5 years. This could leave 15 year olds, inoculated at age 11, with a false sense of security.

5. Although Gardasil protects against four common strains of HPV, there are 26 others and hundreds of additional sexually transmitted diseases. This mandate is like a band-aid that is too small to heal the results of immoral behavior.

6. Parents may opt their daughters out of this requirement. However, the current exemption process in Texas has been described as a “bureaucratic nightmare” which must be repeated every two years.

7. We’re already laying a “toxic load” of vaccines on our kids. How many more behavior-related vaccines will be developed and mandated? The government is not equipped to make these medical decisions for individual children. It makes sense for this vaccine to be offered, free of charge, to the uninsured who want it. But this should be on an “opt-in,” not an “opt-out” basis.

Speaking to the press, Republican state Sen. Jane Nelson wondered why the Gardasil mandate does not apply to boys. Men are carriers of HPV, and to wipe out a disease, you go after the carriers. But it’s girls who stand to lose the most from the sexually promiscuous culture we have created. Unfortunately, a virgin until marriage could contract HPV and other diseases from a spouse with a promiscuous past, so premarital testing and counseling regarding all sexually transmitted diseases should be considered.

But parents, not the government, should make the call. Protecting our girls is a complicated process. These controversial medical fixes become necessary when we throw out moral constraints. We need to tell our daughters we expect them to save sex for marriage. Protecting our girls involves some tough choices and honest conversations that need to begin early.
Penna Dexter is a board of trustee member with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, a conservative activist and an announcer on the syndicated radio program “Life on the Line” (information available at www.lifeontheline.com). She currently serves as a consultant for KMA Direct Communications in Plano, Texas, and as a co-host of “Jerry Johnson Live,” a production of Criswell Communications. She formerly was a co-host of Marlin Maddoux’s “Point of View” syndicated radio program.

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  • Penna Dexter