Assumptions and Presumptions

Let’s imagine a time when a drug has been developed that vaccinates against lung cancers caused by smoking. If administered a few years before the subject takes up smoking, it has a 70% chance of successfully preventing this form of cancer contracted in this way.

Assuming a favourable cost/benefit ratio, it is likely that the Government would make this vaccination available to school children as one of the standard jabs they receive at around the age of 12.

There is a strong chance that knowing they were safe(r) from the disease would have little discernible effect on whether or not a teenager would start to smoke, since adopting the habit is a result of a range of cultural impetuses and expectations, not the considered response to a risk-assessment exercise.

Making the vaccine universal, however, would reveal some interesting assumptions held by the authorities of the day:

  1. Most people are likely to smoke.
  2. People are likely to choose to smoke regardless of the potential consequences.
  3. The health consequences of smoking are so horrible that if it is within our power, we ought to act to obviate the consequences of people’s individual choices because:
  4. Personal freedom of choice is of primary importance.
  5. If it were not for the potential to cause cancer, there would be nothing wrong with smoking.

All well and good, and probably it would pass without comment except by those who worry about paternalistic governments deciding what is best for us, and those who worry that our increasing reliance on medicines is reducing the efficiency and efficacy of our immune systems.

Replace the word ‘lung’ with the word ‘cervical’, though, and the words ‘smoke’ and ‘smoking’ with ‘sleep around’ and ‘promiscuity’, and you get a whole slew of different reactions.

It was reported last week that some schools have opted out of the HPV vaccination programme on the grounds of Christian principles and this has, predictably, caused outrage among a certain type of commentator.

In The Guardian for instance, Reni Eddo-Lodge asserts that “It’s absurd [or “an absolute scandal”] for schools to opt out because of ‘Christian values’.”

She argues that:

The human papillomavirus claims 1,000 victims a year in the form of cervical cancers, and the HPV vaccine prevents 70% of them. This means it is absolutely vital in girls in their early teens are able to access the injection.

The fact that they are able to ‘access the injection’ through their local GPs seems somehow to have escaped Ms Eddo-Lodge, however. Or rather, the fact that the schools are allowing their pupils to exercise personal freedom of choice has escaped her. She knows the vaccine is available through GPs, but thinks it should be the responsibility of the schools to alert local GPs to the fact that it has ‘denied young women access’ to it so that they can make the necessary arrangements (no doubt at considerable effort and expense. I pity the poor receptionist who has to go through all the practice’s medical records working out which patients might attend the school in question. Would your family’s medical records flag you up as likely Christians?).

It is also only ‘absolutely vital’ for girls in their early teens to have the injection if they expect to be sexually active by their mid-teens, which the author seems to take as a given.

She then has the audacity to say that “Projecting adult paranoia about promiscuity on to young women helps no one”, in response to one school explaining the vaccination is not necessary for their pupils because they “do not practise sex outside marriage”. The school is projecting no paranoia about promiscuity onto anyone. It is confident that its pupils are not promiscuous, so therefore they don’t need to be protected from the consequences of their promiscuity. If you’re not in a car, you don’t need to wear a seatbelt, and only intense paranoia would suggest that you do.

She continues in this muddle-headed vein, claiming that “At the crux of religious opposition to the HPV vaccine is a belief that young women cannot be trusted to make decisions about their own bodies.” Again, nothing could be further from the truth. These schools are saying ‘we have made our pupils aware of the consequences of certain types of action, and we believe that despite the messages, values and temptations thrown at them by our culture day after day after day, they have the strength of character, the willpower and the intelligence to make decisions about their own bodies. We trust them to make good, informed choices about their physical, emotional and mental health.’

The assumptions the article’s author holds about morality and religious faith override her ability to think logically about the facts of the issue. These are that:

  1. Teaching girls how to stay healthy is outdated, misguided, “needless moralising” and amounts to ‘exercising control over what women do with their bodies’.
  2. Anything done with a religious (or moral) motivation is bound to be restrictive and objectionable.
  3. An individual’s right to freedom of expression and action overrides any other values.

This is a cautionary tale about the need to be aware of the lens through which we view the world before wading into an argument (or polemic). It’s easy to be presumptuous and pass judgment on the basis of assumptions that turn out to be unfounded.

Having said that, which is more presumptuous: to tell girls they have the right, the freedom and the intelligence to make informed choices about their lives and actions, or that they’re so prone to promiscuity that they must take drugs to obviate the consequences?

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This article first appeared on ThinkTheology.

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