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the Gauntlet

Bishop Henry fails to do the right thing (again)

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During a debate last year on whether or not Catholicism is a source for good in the world, actor Stephen Fry, arguing for the negative, stated that the Catholic Church's approach to sex is unhealthy. He likened sex to food, arguing, "the only people who are obsessed with food are anorexics and the morbidly obese and that, in erotic terms, is the Catholic Church in a nutshell."

Calgary Catholic bishop Fred Henry decided again last week that Catholic schools in Calgary aren't going to offer the HPV vaccine to girls. Henry argues that providing the vaccine is akin to endorsing premarital sex, which the Church thinks is immoral. Students who still want to be vaccinated can go to public health clinics free of charge.

The vaccine prevents against 75 per cent of cervical cancers and 90 per cent of genital warts (the latter in both males and females). A recent report by Alberta Health Services, however, states that less than 20 per cent of girls who attend Catholic and private schools are opting to be vaccinated. While less extreme, this policy is similar to the Vatican's prevention of condom dispersal in Africa.

There is no reason to think that offering a vaccine against a form of cancer will encourage sex. The Church is the best institution in the world at scaring children, yet implying that they are more likely to get cancer by having sex is unlikely to stop them from doing it. While the Vatican has taken advantage of ignorance in Africa by spreading lies about the transmission of AIDS, teenagers in Canada are going to use condoms or (as in Africa) have sex regardless. Henry is no scientist, nor does he offer any evidence for his view that children will be more likely to have sex if vaccinated.

More broadly, the Church lacks a convincing argument for why sex is wrong in the first place. Children should be taught about the seriousness of sex, including the possibility of being infected with a sexually transmitted infection and getting pregnant. There is no guarantee, however, that pregnancy and infection will occur. Teenagers can enjoy responsible sex like any other group or they can choose to not have sex until later on in their lives. Without a reasonable argument for why sex is wrong, the Church is collectively lying to children by stating that sex is immoral.

Suppose it were the case that providing these vaccinations increased teenage sex. Would Henry and his church be vindicated? No. The reason why borders on banality: getting cancer is far worse than having sex. Any belief system that says otherwise should be rejected outright and its propagators condemned for both falsity and perniciousness. An act should be judged right or wrong based on its effects -- cancer obviously negatively effects a person's body and well-being. What about sex? We can imagine wrong acts involving sex, such as rape or omitting to tell a partner that you have AIDS, but this doesn't show that all forms of sex are immoral unless sanctified by God through marriage.

Henry and his flock will likely find this unfair. They may claim that I am conflating their refusal to offer the HPV vaccine with increasing the risk of cancer and deny that this amounts to culpability. This, however, is exactly my claim. Acts of omission can still be wrong, such as the case of the person who has sex without telling her partner that she has AIDS. The case of the vaccine is different in an important way from that situation -- people can get the vaccine later on, thereby obviating the dangers so long as they haven't yet had sex. But suppose some don't. Suppose teachers and parents have taught them that sex before marriage is immoral and getting the shot amounts to admitting that sex is okay. The Church is responsible then, along with those who took part in propagating the lie that sex is immoral.

Ethical action ought to be judged by consequences. If someone such as Henry can prevent cancer by encouraging the vaccine (to no detriment to himself), to refuse to do so makes him responsible for the cases he could have prevented.

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