29 October 2011
A federal advisory panel has recommended that preteenage boys as young as 11 be vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV) (see this New York Times article from Oct. 25).
The same Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices—which was empaneled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta—previously recommended vaccinating all school-age girls against HPV, also beginning at age 11, in a report issued in 2006. That report ignited a firestorm of controversy at the time.
Since 2006, legislators in most states have proposed bills mandating the vaccination of preteen girls, though to date only a handful of such bills have been passed and signed into law. The momentum appears to be slowing down in the face of fierce public resistance (see this National Conference of State Legislatures web site for details). Just recently, Texas Governor Rick Perry’s support for such a program in his state came under fire from his fellow Republican presidential candidates.
The new Advisory Committee report recommending that young boys be vaccinated, as well as girls, is sure to prove even more politically incendiary than the earlier report did. The reason is that the cancers against which the vaccination provides protection in boys—cancer of the throat and the anus—are the result of homosexual sex acts. In women, the virus may, in rare cases, give rise to neoplasia of the cervix, which can, if left untreated, cause cervical cancer.
What is wrong with vaccinating schoolchildren—whether girls or boys—in order to wipe out a virus that can cause cancer? Isn’t opposition to such vaccination programs just another example of the “Republican war on science” that we are hearing so much about these days?
In a word: No. It’s not. But, then, what is the right way to think about this difficult problem?
Opponents of mandatory vaccination of young children against venereal disease have two major complaints. One is that it is yet another example of big government run amok—far-off experts with alien values telling ordinary folks what to do.
The other major objection to HPV vaccination campaigns is that the whole idea is part and parcel of the trend in our society toward reducing human sexual behavior from the moral plane to the medical one.
Parents with a traditional understanding of morality are understandably upset that, beginning in the earliest grades, our nation’s schoolchildren are being taught that there is no such thing as actions that are right or wrong, only “behavior” that is “appropriate” or “inappropriate” to a certain situation or an essentially arbitrary set of rules. And our schoolkids are being indoctrinated with this philosophy of moral relativism—for that’s exactly what it is, philosophy—in the name of “science.”
This is the real heart of the matter: What is the proper role of ordinary moral instincts and feelings in public debate in a pluralistic democracy? And the follow-up question that needs most urgently to be posed is this: Why does the metaphysical doctrine of moral relativism qualify for public acceptance as ”rational” and “neutral” and “science-based,” while traditional moral intuitions are discredited as “irrational” and “biased” and “faith-based”?
Of course, secular liberals have a vested interest in casting this and similar questions in terms of a stark opposition between faith and reason. However, that is an utterly specious—though politically convenient—way of posing the problem. Questions of right and wrong and the proper role of morality in public decision making, such as the content of public education, are clearly beyond the competence of science. Morality is a matter for philosophical and religious reflection, followed by reasoned public debate. It is not a matter for scientific pontification.
What secular liberals do not get is that their view that sex has no moral significance as long as it’s “safe” is not a scientific determination, but a metaphysical construction. What we have in the controversy over the HPV vaccine—as in so many similar debates in our society—are two opposing moral and philosophical systems. For the secular liberals who see the universe as drained of all moral significance to be allowed to occupy the high ground of scientific authority unchallenged is an intellectual travesty.
If secular liberals have trouble wrapping their mind around the traditional (not just religious) moral worldview, perhaps this analogy will help:
We know—it is a scientific fact—that a small proportion of school-age boys and girls will grow up to become heroin addicts. We also know—another scientific fact—that there are safer ways to inject oneself with heroin to avoid contracting HIV, hepatitis C, and other serious infections. Therefore, should we not mandate that all 11-year-olds be taught about the proper way to shoot up safely? Isn’t it just obvious that this is what science demands?
On second thought, secular liberals probably won’t even see the absurdity of this scenario. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if my fantasy was a reality somewhere out there in this scientifically brow-beaten land of ours. And if there is no public school program yet to teach preteens how to be safer junkies, it is probably only a question of time.
Why isn’t my view just another “attack on science”? Because to recognize that there are limits to the competence of science, or rather scientists, to pronounce on human affairs is not to attack it, or them. It is simply to insist on the supremacy of morality over science, technology, and medicine—and not the other way around. And that is a matter of common sense.
Apparently, some people find this simple idea hard to fathom. Perhaps it is because when the ordinary moral instincts wither and die, people can no longer understand what it means to say that something is wrong, even if it is “safe.”