I have recently learned of a teenage girl with cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is one of those invasive, often fatal forms of cancer. Seventy percent of those cancers are caused by an HPV virus, for which there is now a vaccine. There are other ways to get cervical cancer other than through the HPV virus, and only a very small percentage of the people who get the vaccine actually get cervical cancer. However, if this girl’s guardians had given her the vaccine, there is a 70% chance that they would have saved her from a very unpleasant experience involving chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. There is a good change that they would have saved their life.
I am wondering whether it would be legitimate to charge parents or guardians in cases like this where the child dies with negligent homicide. They were negligent in protecting their children from harm. They failed to take action that would have protected the child, and the action they failed to take is an action that somebody with good desires – such as the desire to protect the health and life children in one’s care – would have performed. They failed to act on desires that people generally have reason to encourage in others – desires that tend to fulfill other desires. People generally have reason to promote those desires, which means that people generally have reason to target those who show a deficiency in those desires with condemnation (at least) and, possibly, punishment.
The most common defense against the accusation of negligence in this case is religion. First, there is the claim that, in order to get the HPV virus in a way that causes cervical cancer, one has to have sex. Obviously, teenage girls who have sex are violating God’s law, and those who violate God’s law are subject to God’s punishment. This cancer is God’s divine wrath, and for humans to take steps to thwart God’s plan . . . for humans to take steps to ‘play God’ and make decisions that should be left in God’s hands . . . is objectionable.
Let’s start with the simple statement that there is no God and there is no plan. Humans have come into existence through several hundred million years of evolution. There is not much that I can say about my ancestors going back to the time when sex became a requirement for reproduction. However, this much I do know . . . none (or quite nearly none) of my billions of ancestors in that time period died a virgin. They have faced hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary pressure to weed out those who had no interest in sex, leaving those who had a desire for sex.
No creature in nature has sex for the sake of procreation. Creatures in nature have sex for the sake of having sex. Procreation is an unintended side-effect of sex, something that the animal having sex is not even considering. We, as humans, have the capacity to have sex for the sake of procreation. However, what we inherited from our ancestors is a desire to have sex for the sake of having sex, and procreation has nothing to do with it.
When parents act for religious reasons, and those religious reasons cause a child to die that would have otherwise lived, then their religion is no different from one that lays a child out on an altar, then takes a knife, and offers the child as a blood sacrifice to God.
The claim may be made, “You have no right to interfere with us as we practice our religion.” However, this is not always the case. The person who practices his religion by flying airplanes into sky scrapers may well be prohibited from practicing his religion. The person who practices his religion by enslaving blacks and forcing them to labor on his plantation may be prohibited from practicing his religion. The person who obeys the religious commandment not to suffer a witch to live by tying her neighbor to a stake and setting her on fire may be prohibited from practicing her religion. The person who obeys the religious commandment to destroy any and all temples to other gods may be prohibited from practicing his religion. The person who offers a child as a blood sacrifice to God may be prohibited from practicing his religion.
The right to freedom of religion is a right to engage in those practices that are a part of one’s religious culture – practices governing what to wear, what to eat, when to eat (or not eat), when to pray, how to pray, what music to listen to (or not listen to), where and with whom one may have consensual sex. There is a morality that transcends religion, that we may prohibit all religions from violating. The parental responsibility to protect one’s children from death or significant injury is one of those moral obligations that transcends all religions. The person who puts a child at risk of serious injury or harm for religious reasons may, in fact, be prohibited from practicing his religion.
One of the problems with religion in this country is that, even among those who are not particularly religious (the religiously apathetic who do not care whether a God exists) can pick up the attitudes of the religious people around her. So, where some religious people insist on putting their children in harm’s way, some religiously apathetic people simply neglect to take steps to protect their children. Negligence with respect to the welfare of a child, however, is also a moral crime.
This creates a market for arguments that support the same conclusion that the religious person wants us to accept without the divine elements that are so easily suspect. They invent arguments that make little sense, but embrace their arguments because their religion or the religion of others in their community has so infested their minds that they cannot see the error.
One of these secular arguments claims that it is a good idea to use the fear of death or significant harm from cervical cancer as a deterrent to use to prevent teenagers from having sex. They want to be able to say, “If you have sex, you might die, even if we do not catch you,” as a way to keep their daughters pure and chaste.
This is as absurd as requiring that houses be built without circuit breakers because the threat of fire will cause people to be more careful in their use of electricity. It is as absurd as passing a law that prohibits the use of life jackets on the water or bicycle helmets when riding a bike because the increased possibility of surviving an accident promotes carelessness.
If this argument actually made sense, then, if there was no such thing as cervical cancer, we could use the same reasons to support a law whereby every teenage girl who has sex puts their name in a bin, and each year a few names are removed, where those whose names are drawn are subject to months of torture, and a substantial percentage of them are actually tortured to death.
The nation that would pass such a law is not civilized. These are barbarians. Yet, failure to protect one’s children from the ravages of cervical cancer is no different than putting the child’s name in a lottery bin to be tortured in killed for disobedience – disobedience driven by hundreds of millions of years of evolution promoting a desire to have sex.
If you know of somebody who has not yet had their child vaccinated against the HPV virus, I would like to strongly encourage you to summon the courage to do something to change that fact. It could make the world a better place – or, at least, prevent the world from becoming a worse place than it could otherwise be, at least for some young girl somewhere.