Bishop Phonsie Cullinan of Waterford and Lismore has made a graceful apology for his remarks criticising the HPV vaccine. His overall points had been that the vaccine against cervical cancer might not be completely safe: and it might also have the effect of encouraging promiscuity among young girls.
He has subsequently called his remarks “an error of judgement”, and said that he put across his words “in a ham-fisted way”. He was, of course, scalded in the media for any suggestion that there could be a connection between the incidence of cervical cancer and promiscuity.
It’s complicated. There can be a connection, but there isn’t necessarily a connection.
The last time I had a routine cervical smear (at Charing Cross Hospital in London) I told the gynaecologist that a good friend of mine had recently died of cervical cancer. “Then she probably had a lot of sexual partners,” he said. I thought this rather judgemental of the medic, and I murmured something in defence of my friend.
He insisted. “The more sexual partners a woman has – and the younger she starts her sex-life – the more vulnerable she may be.”
Yet, while the gyny presumably felt he was only doing his job of providing information, it is also true that a woman can get cervical cancer having had only one sexual partner in a faithful marriage. Because it is the man who transmits the virus, albeit unknowingly.
And here’s another interesting aspect of the matter. Orthodox Jewish women rarely get the disease. It is thought that this is because Jewish husbands are circumcised. So, there is a supposed link between the circumcision of boys and the medical health of their future spouses.
One way to prevent cervical cancer would be to revert to the practice of male circumcision, which was sometimes carried out in the past on non-Jewish men (one of my brothers, in the 1930s, was circumcised as a new-born – it was recommended as a health measure).
A vaccine is certainly part of health prevention, and if safe, it is a positive good. The New Testament is concerned with health, and St Luke himself was a doctor: health remedies are certainly part of the canon of Christianity.
However, on a separate point, it is worth exploring the facts and information about cervical cancer. We know, for sure, that it is not good health practice for teenage girls to have sexual experience too young, when that part of their body is still immature. So, it surely wouldn’t be helpful to endorse multi-partner sexual experience for very young women – who are indeed more vulnerable in this sphere than young males.
When is a child not a child?
One of next year’s referenda will ask whether young people should vote at the age of 16. A national discussion which we should perhaps approach with an open mind.
If young people get into the habit of voting at 16, then they’ll probably continue to be active voters. Teens can be idealistic and well-informed, too, so they may often have quite high standards for public life.
But the young can also be dazzled by charismatic personalities who may lead them along questionable paths. It is now known that the human brain is not developed until the age of 25.
There are many inconsistencies in our laws and practices about who we consider ‘a child’ (any refugee under 18 is categorised as a child) and who an adult. There are also many variations among individuals. I’ve seen a boy of 13 handle a tractor with consummate skill. But should he be on the road at 13? All to discuss!