To be honest, Texas would have been near the bottom of my list.

For those who have not already heard the news, Texas has become the first state to implement a statewide HPV vaccine. The vaccine will be given to girls starting at age 11 and is being sought as a means to reducing the spread of cervical cancer. (The vaccine is reported to eliminate the two forms of the virus that cause 70% of clinical cases.)

This is quite a progressive step for a state that commonly provides abstinence-only education in its public schools. A number of other states, including California, are considering following Texas’s lead.

Texas Governor Rick Perry has addressed the moral concerns of his citizens, pointing out that the vaccine is not meant to condone “promiscuity.” Parents will be able to object to the vaccinations by signing an affadavit objecting to the procedure.

Should parents be able to opt out so easily? The National Cancer Institute lists HPV as “the major risk factor” for the development of cervical cancer. If the vaccination program has been put in place first and foremost in the interest of eradicating a painful and tragic disease, why should we let people opt out? After all, Texans, despite all their moral posturing, are having unprotected sex. The state’s teen pregnancy rate doesn’t lie.

I usually echo fairly libertarian sentiments on this blog, but here, I feel moved to put them aside.

Sure, there’s the argument that the idea of a “forced vaccination” is in itself Orwellian and undesirable. And while that may resonate with us on a basic level, I don’t think that argument does anything beyond setting up a slippery slope.

So maybe the better tack is more pragmatic. After all, if Texans are paying for this program, shouldn’t it be executed to its fullest?

There is, I think, an analogy to similar “conscience clauses” that allow pharmacists in certain states to refuse to sell birth control. The idea is a seductive one: Jane retains the right to exercise her reproductive rights and John, at the same time, retains his right to exercise his moral beliefs. But this might not always be a desirable scenario. It’s likely John is working as a pharmacist in a poorer, rural area. It’s also likely that Jane lives nearby. It’s also likely that John’s pharmacy is the only one nearby, or perhaps the only one who accepts Jane’s insurance, if she is lucky enough to have any.

Our nation’s legal system has long recognized a strong right to moral and religious freedom. The problem is that this tradition sometimes brings to bear significant costs on certain individuals or on society as a whole. When do we part ways with this tradition, or at least limit it in the name of the public good? Morality is well and good, but how long will we let it get in the way of achieving justice and policy results?

Or, are we better off going back to a libertarian view? Can the state’s right to protect me from disease live side-by-side with the individual’s right to refuse to participate in the program?

Thoughts?

Daniel Corbett

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