Action items In some context of your own choosing, take some action today to promote the passage of a law in your state or country that will mandate that all girls get vaccinated for Human Papillomavirus (HPV). However, make sure that the actions taken respect the principle of a proper separation of powers that is necessary to protect the people from a tyrannical executive branch.
The Case of Texas
Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, has signed an executive order mandating that all girls in Texas get a vaccine for Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a major cause of cervical cancer.
I have one serious problem with this executive order – this is with a member of the Executive Branch of government taking legislative authority away from the legislature. As I have argued repeatedly with regard to President Bush’s signing statements, there is good reason for a system of checks and balances – too much power in too few hands is a recipe for disaster. This means leaving it to the legislature to make law.
I have no objection to the legislation itself, and I would certainly encourage any state to pass this legislation. The claim that this vaccine promotes promiscuity is an absurdity. The argument used against vaccinating children is as foolish as an argument prohibiting motorcycle drivers from wearing helmets, or prohibiting seat belts or air bags or child safety seats in automobiles, on the grounds that the possibility of getting maimed or killed in a wreck will cause people to drive more carefully.
Principles of Parental Obligation Revisited
In an earlier post titled, “Consent and Dignity: The Case of Ashley” I argued for a principle that governs one person making decisions for another that the agent should choose what the individual he is choosing for would have chosen for herself if she was rational. In fact, a rational person would choose to get this vaccine. Even a rational person who also decided to protect herself from sexually transmitted disease through abstinence has a reason to be concerned about a possible sexual assault, an unfaithful spouse, a spouse who was not so careful when younger, or a spouse who was a victim of a sexual assault.
In addition, I argued that this principle of doing what the individual one is choosing for would have chosen for herself has to consider the fact of the other person’s incompetence. If I knew that I was prone to make irrational decisions when gambling, it would be rational of me to take precautions against the high consequences of those mistakes. I could resolve to go gambling only with a certain amount of money and no access to any more money. Children are prone to make irrational decisions. Parents, whose obligation is to choose for children what those children would choose for themselves, have an obligation to protect children from their own irrational and immature choices.
Some people protest, “We have a right to decide how to raise our children!” Not when there is good evidence that one is raising one’s child in a way that puts the child’s life and health at risk. We can ask such a person, “What would you say of the parent who thinks that his child needs daily sexual stimulation to grow up healthy. Does, he have the right to raise his child as he sees fit?” The principle behind the answer to this question is that there is reason not to allow parents to “choose” to risk causing their child clear and scientifically demonstrable harm.
For these reasons I would certainly urge any legislature to support this law. Giving a child this vaccine is something that every good parent will do. However, this is an issue for the legislative branch, not the executive branch.
An Aside on Religious Beliefs and Harm
I have read comments from many parents who say, “I know that my child will never have extra-marital sex, so I know that they will never need this vaccine.” These parents are idiots. A parent can no more know this than one can know that their child will never use drugs, smoke, or drink. Nor can any parent ever know that their child will not be the victim of a sexual assault or find a partner who was not so careful.
As an aside, it is also worthy of mention that this is yet another case where people confounded by religious beliefs adopt attitudes that put the health and even the lives of others at risk – that put the lives and health of their own children at risk. I have not complained about religious beliefs when it leads people to doing things that help others or help protect people from harm. Yet, this is another item to add to the list where religious beliefs cause those who have them to put others at risk, or at least to refuse to remove them from harm’s way.
It is a habit of those who criticize religion to point to incidents in the past – crusades, inquisitions, slavery, and the like, as reason to condemn religion. This is actually a very poor argument. Unless the person one is talking to actually endorses the crusades, inquisitions, and slavery of the past it is unreasonable and unjust to accuse him of supporting those moral crimes.
However, it is perfectly legitimate to complain that a person’s religious beliefs, if they imply opposition to this legislation, would contribute to the deaths of thousands of tens of thousands of today’s children if they were to become widespread. This is a good reason to oppose any attempt to make those beliefs widespread. Yet, even here it the argument applies only those whose religious beliefs lead to opposition against giving children this vaccine.
Moral Principles of Government Power
In the case of Texas, such a bill faced heavy opposition. There was a very good chance that the legislature would not come up with the right answer in this issue. However, we have a lot of very good reasons to reject the principle that the Executive Branch may override the Legislative Branch whenever the Executive thinks the Legislature is mistaken. The legislature has the right to be wrong.
I can fully understand the temptation on the part of the governor to take action. If I were governor, I would approach this issue by imagining myself sitting in the hospital room of a young woman with cervical cancer. I would imagine myself being forced to tell her, “You are in this situation because your parents were fools. Even though I could have forced them to make a wiser choice . . . even though you would not have been in this situation if I had done so . . . I choose to allow your parents to remain fools and to put your health, even your life at risk. I cannot deny some responsibility for this.”
Yet, every would-be tyrant ever lived would love to have a principle of government that said, “The Executive Branch may assume legislative authority whenever it thinks that the legislature is wrong.”
It is all too tempting to adopt an attitude that says, “The Executive Branch is limited in its power whenever it, like the Bush Administration, is prone to do things that I do not like; and far less limited in its power when it does something I like.” However, this is not a viable principle to adopt. No doubt, the Executive Branch is not going to appeal to me to determine how much power it has. If it is given these overly broad powers, then it will use them whenever the Executive pleases to do so, not when it pleases me.
Adopting a narrower principle requires that I allow that there will be cases when the Executive Branch oversteps its boundaries even when they are doing something that I very much would like to see done, over the protests of a legislature who are opposed.
It is far more important, capable of saving society from far greater harms (as the Bush Administration’s abuse of this principle has proved), that the Executive Branch not be allowed to take for itself the power to pass legislation.
Education and Action
This is not to say that nothing should be done to protect those children from foolish parents. Instead, it argues for a strong campaign to educate the people to create a legislature that will pass this legislation. This campaign does not need to convince everybody, just enough people to actually get the bill passed.
This type of education campaign will actually be good for a society because it should lead to a better educated population. The Governor’s attempt to bypass the legislature not only forces this decision on a population whose representatives do not approve it, it also keeps the population in the dark as to the merits of this legislation. It is one thing to force an individual to perform some action. It is another to educate that person about the reasons why he should perform that action.
Those citizens who do not take steps to educate the population about the moral requirement to get the Legislature to approve this legislation, those are the citizens who should imagine themselves sitting at the bed of some future young woman telling her, “I could have saved you from this, but I did nothing.”