Amidst the recent health care debate, a point of strong contention has been reproductive/sexual health. One small, yet important facet of the debate focuses on adolescents and teens, regarding how and when they should be educated on reproductive health, abstinence, STDs, and pregnancy prevention. In a recent poll focusing on STD prevention and treatment for teens, most parents questioned stated that they would want their kids to have free access to STD treatment if needed, but still feel that HPV vaccination should require parental consent.
One of the reasons given across the board was that the recommended age for vaccination is very young, around 11-12 years of age. Some stated concerns that it might encourage their kids to become sexually active prematurely. This is a common argument used by advocates of abstinence-only education, that making certain information known to kids will rob them of their innocence and encourage them to make unwise or promiscuous sexual decisions.
However, statistics show that in areas where schools push abstinence-only education, there is a higher rate of STDs and unplanned pregnancies among teens. This would seem to indicate that adolescents and teens are more than capable of taking an interest in, and participating in, sexual activity regardless of whether they are exposed to STD education, methods of contraception, or HPV vaccination. Sexual/reproductive health advocates often use these statistics to illustrate that the availability of safe-sex education, HPV vaccination, and other health measures do not encourage kids to have sex so much as it helps to protect them, should they decide to become sexually active.
Another argument from those opposed to a parental consent requirement alludes to the sobering reality that many kids in the United States simply do not come from the same kind of stable, loving environment that so many other kids enjoy. While there are systems and protections in place to aid these kids, they are far from foolproof, and a startling number of kids never get such assistance. If an adolescent lives in a situation where there is neglect, it may be up to them to make decisions regarding their own health. If the youth lives in a situation where there is abuse, the matter of sexual health may be too delicate to involve the parents, who–if abusers–could overreact, jump to false conclusions, and seriously harm the child.
Fortunately, there are many parents in the United States who are not like this at all. They genuinely care for the welfare of their kids and want to make sure that the decisions they make will be best for them down the line. Perhaps it would comfort these parents to know that it is highly unlikely that the HPV vaccination works on sexually active patients, as the risk of exposure and infection is startlingly high for sexually active people of all ages. Therefore, the recommended age for the vaccine was chosen as a window of time when the body is mature enough to process it, but also well before an adolescent would be likely to become sexually active. By giving the patient the vaccine at the age of 11 or 12, there is a small risk of exposing them to sexual ideas and options they might not have considered before, but it would also protect them from a virus that has been linked to serious health problems, including cervical cancer in women.
All of this aside, there is another valid reason for parents to want a parental consent requirement when in comes to HPV vaccinations. Regardless of category, it is still a vaccine, hence a medical treatment that will forever alter their adolescent child’s system. As it is so new, there is much we still don’t know about its possible long-term effects. Plus, parents are medically responsible for their children until they reach a certain age. How could they be expected to make informed medical decisions for their child without knowing for certain which vaccinations their child have had or not had?
As we work out healthcare reform and healthcare laws in the United States, how much freedom or autonomy do you think teens and adolescents should be granted regarding their own sexual/reproductive health? Do you think they should have any at all? What about education? In matters of parental consent, should certain provisions be in place to protect abused children, and what steps do you think could be taken to better protect them going forward? Is abstinence-only the way to go across the board, or is that too unrealistic an expectation? Share your thoughts in our comments.