Did the Hamilton Diocese support giving the HPV vaccine in its Catholic schools?
BURLINGTON, Ontario, November 12, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – After the Halton Catholic District School Board passed a motion November 5th allowing public health nurses into the schools to dispense the HPV vaccine, a crucial question remains: What role did the Diocese of Hamilton play in getting the motion passed?
The diocese contends that it took no position on the policy, but some observers say the general impression is that they supported the motion.
The vaccine has been controversial, with strong opposition from many parents and Church leaders, because of concerns that offering teens a vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease weakens the Church’s message to them about the call to abstinence before marriage. There have also been serious concerns about the vaccine’s safety.
At the board’s October 1st meeting, when the issue was first raised, the diocese sent Teresa Hartnett, director of the diocese’s Office for Family Ministry, to speak on behalf of Bishop Douglas Crosby.
Before Hartnett spoke, the board heard from Dr. Bob Nosal, the Halton region’s medical officer, who urged the trustees to reverse their 2008 ban on the vaccine. Nosal stressed the vaccine’s safety, and emphasized “in no uncertain terms” that the health department would only administer the vaccine after obtaining a signed consent form from parents.
Hartnett began her address by saying she “trust[s]” Nosal’s assurance that parental consent would be required. If there’s “no consent, no child in the school will receive the vaccine,” she said. Throughout the talk, she stressed the importance of parental consent being respected.
But she also insisted that offering the vaccine would not violate Church teaching and that the vaccine is no different than others offered by the school. “The bishops have not been against the vaccine,” she said, adding:
We have to look at it as any other vaccine. We have a protection to offer to our children in light of the fact that they may indeed come in contact with an illness that can in fact cause death and in many cases does cause death. And so the use of our schools does not go against our Catholic teachings because it clearly puts consent in the hands of the parents and that's the key to any of our Catholic teachings.
Hartnett denied the claim that offering the vaccine would seem to weaken the Church’s stance against premarital sex:
The concern around this vaccine is that we're sending a message to our young children that they will indeed believe that they should and can be sexually active, that they are protected in ways that they're not, and that because they've been given this vaccine they will engage in sexual activity more readily, more easily. For thirty years, I have dedicated my life to the area of youth sexuality. There's not one … study that supports that statement, that this vaccine will do that. For most children it's a vaccine like the other vaccines.
"The risk is far greater of someone dying of cervical cancer than having a death or a major problem from the vaccine,” she added.
LifeSiteNews contacted Hartnett to ask about her apparent support for allowing the vaccine in the Catholic schools. She contended that she had not taken a position on the board’s policy. “I did not speak for or against the Board’s decision to administer the HPV vaccination,” she said. “That decision is a Board decision and I was only there to clarify some specific points for them.”
She argued that she had “presented the Bishops of Ontario belief” in three points: 1) that “it is a parent’s right to decide on whether or not they will have Public Health administer the HPV vaccination to their daughters”; 2) that “parents have an obligation and right to be educated about the vaccine”; and 3) that “this is an opportunity for every parent to speak to their child about the beautiful teachings of the Catholic Church on human sexuality.”
Hartnett’s contention that Ontario’s bishops are not opposed to the vaccine may raise eyebrows considering that the initial opposition to the vaccine at the Halton Catholic board in 2007 was based on a letter from the bishops expressing grave reservations about the province-wide HPV immunization campaign.
The Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario told LifeSiteNews that that was the only statement the bishops have issued on the subject. (Available here.)
In response to follow-up questions noting that her address had gone beyond the Ontario bishops’ position, Hartnett argued that in the address she had distinguished her presentation of the bishops’ position and her own personal views:
As you have stated, I did in fact say that administering the vaccine in Catholic schools is not against Church teaching, and that there is no proof to suggest that promotion of the vaccine will lead to increased sexual activity. In my presentation I distinguished what the Bishops of Ontario wrote in their 2009 statement from the commentary offered by myself on this issue. Everything I stated was in full accord with both Catholic teaching and the current data around this issue.
I did not advocate any position as to whether the Board should lift or maintain their ban on the vaccination, I provided information and commented in the manner described above.
LifeSiteNews asked the diocese for its position on the Halton Catholic board’s policy on the vaccine, and spokeswoman Pam Aleman reiterated verbatim the three points Hartnett had given LifeSiteNews to characterize the Ontario bishops’ position.
We responded with some of Hartnett’s quotes in favour of the vaccine, and asked whether the diocese supports the position taken by its representative at the board meeting. Aleman replied that the diocese’s position “remains the same” as in her previous e-mail, and again listed the three points.
Halton Catholic’s ban on the vaccine had won support from experts in Catholic moral theology.
Dr. Moira McQueen, executive director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, told LifeSiteNews early on in the debate last month that the decision about the vaccine should be left to parents and not pushed through the schools.
“If parents want their children to receive the HPV vaccine, they can take it upon themselves to do so,” she said. “School boards do not NEED to be involved and there is no urgent need, such as a public health threat like a flu epidemic, for health authorities to use school premises.”
In a letter to trustees in advance of last week’s board meeting, Fr. Tom Lynch, national director of Priests for Life Canada, urged them to continue the ban “because it clearly reveals what our expectations about chastity are in the Catholic Church.” Fr. Lynch is a former dean at St. Augustine’s Seminary and is currently a lecturer there in moral theology.
The most vocal voice against the HPV vaccine in the country has been Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary. The Calgary Catholic School District only approved the vaccine’s administration in the schools in November 2012, and did so against his wishes.
“The only winner in all of this is Merck,” the company that produces the drug, Bishop Henry told LifeSiteNews at the time. The company “stands to make even more money based on exaggerated claims, incomplete and limited scientific data, and our fear of cancer.”
“We are all losers if we believe that pills, lotions, condoms and vaccines are the solution to the spread of STDs. I hope that some day we wake up!” he added.
The bishop has argued that the push for the vaccine is based in a utilitarian ethic, rather than Catholic moral teaching, and thus undermines the virtue of chastity.
“If we don’t attempt to change sexual behaviour that is responsible for transmission of the HPV, but attempt to solve the problem by getting a series of shots, then we don’t have to exercise self control, nor develop virtue, but can use medicine to palliate our vices,” the bishop has said. “The technological solution requires no change in behaviour. It does not really address the cause but masks it, and actually undermines efforts to achieve the most efficient solution.”