Should Christian parents consider giving their children the HPV vaccine?

November 3, 2016

“You mean the STD vaccine? No thanks. She doesn’t need that.”

I have heard this refrain many times, both in my practice and in conversations with friends and family. Parents who otherwise have no qualms about protecting their children with routine immunizations often balk when it comes to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

Why? The most common reason I’ve heard from parents is a simple one: They don’t think their child needs it. They perceive that their child has no risk of getting a sexually transmitted HPV infection in their lifetime, so the vaccine must not be necessary. Christian parents, in particular, can be skeptical of a vaccine they view as specifically intended for sexually active teens.

Of course, parents who are committed followers of Christ are absolutely right to be discerning in how they interact with a healthcare system that does not necessarily share their worldview. We should not blindly accept every recommendation. But as we seek to raise children who love and obey the Lord, does giving them the HPV vaccine unavoidably infringe upon our Christian sensibilities? I would argue that it does not.

What is HPV?

Human papillomavirus is a very common virus that is spread from person to person through skin-to-skin (usually sexual) contact. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. It’s so common, in fact, that nearly all sexually active people will be infected with one or more types of HPV during their lifetime. Many people know of HPV as the cause of genital warts, but more frequently the infection goes unnoticed because it causes no outward signs or symptoms. These asymptomatic infections can still be unwittingly spread from person to person, which makes it difficult to control transmission in the general population.

Certain types of HPV are known to cause cancer (e.g., cervical or penile cancer) or precancerous lesions, though these usually do not present until years later. A recent study estimated nearly 40,000 cases of HPV-associated cancer per year in the U.S. Cervical cancer is the most well known of these, and women are encouraged to undergo regular screening to detect it early. The extent of disease in men is greatly underappreciated, but they account for 40 percent of all HPV-associated cancers.

A means of cancer prevention

Due to the high prevalence of HPV infection and the known risk of developing HPV-associated cancers, I advise families to strongly consider giving their children the recommended HPV vaccine series (currently, a three-dose series starting at 11–12 years old). Rather than focusing on the perceived likelihood of their child getting a sexually transmitted infection, I encourage parents to frame the HPV vaccine in their mind as a safe and reliable method of cancer prevention. As the statistics show, HPV-associated cancers are common, but this vaccine offers a reliable method of prevention, even in high-risk populations. That's a pretty remarkable statement—we have a cancer-preventing vaccine. As a healthcare provider, I love writing that sentence and wish I could write it about more diseases.

As with any medical intervention, there is an associated risk, but the safety profile of HPV vaccines is well established, and serious adverse effects have been shown to be extremely rare. Public concern and rumors about adverse effects persist—you’ve likely come across them in conversation or on your Facebook page—but it is important to note that a causal association between HPV vaccination and most of these purported side effects remains unproven.

So, at the risk of oversimplifying, it seems a pretty straightforward calculation: If you have a safe and easy way to ensure the prevention of HPV-associated cancers in your children’s future, why wouldn't you take it?

Well-meaning hesitations

Nevertheless, plenty of well-intending parents remain hesitant. The most common reason I have heard from Christian parents who decline the HPV vaccine has nothing to do with any concern about the safety of the vaccine; it is that they don't think their children will be at risk for a sexually transmitted infection such as HPV.

Of course, few Christian parents believe their child is likely to become sexually active before marriage. I can relate with that. Furthermore, if we tend not to think of our children as likely to become sexually active in their teenage or single adult years, it follows that we would be even less inclined to consider the potential future health consequences of that activity, especially at the young age of 11. So when I offer the HPV vaccine to a parent, it does not surprise me that the recommendation seems completely irrelevant to them.

The medical community does not always help make the case for why it is relevant, often promoting the vaccine in a way that is off-putting to Christians. For instance, even if a parent wanted to learn more about the HPV vaccine to help make the best decision for their child’s health, they have to wade through educational material drowning in secular assumptions about a teenager’s propensity for high-risk sexual activity (and a parent’s desire to safely empower it). It’s completely understandable that these resources don’t resonate with Christian parents.

Careful consideration in a fallen world

Regardless of how you perceive your child’s risk, I would encourage you not to dismiss the HPV vaccine outright. As followers of Christ, we face the reality of raising children in a fallen world, a world in which a surprisingly large amount of people harbor a virus that causes cancer. Parents have a God-ordained role in helping to protect our children from sin and its consequences, cancer included.

To be clear, our first line of defense in this fight is not vaccination; it is the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are called to bring our children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). We must teach and train them diligently, praying they will grow to treasure Christ and trusting the Spirit to give them a desire to understand and obey all of God's commands, including his design for sex and marriage. As parents, this is our task and our hope.

Yet even as we actively seek this for our children, we have no cause to assume they will never sin or be sinned against. We’re all familiar with the stark reality of the prevalence of sexual sin in our society. I am not advocating that we assume the worst of our children and start handing out condoms, but neither should we pretend they could never be at risk of sexual sin.

Or, to go a step further, even if our children do abstain from sexual activity before marriage, what grounds do we have to assume their future spouse will have done the same? With an infection as common as HPV, that’s all it takes to be considered “at risk.” Yet, we’re often overly confident that our children won’t be in this situation and turn down the opportunity to provide protection from life-threatening cancer.

Giving the HPV vaccine is not an endorsement of sexual activity or a prediction of future high-risk behavior; it’s prudence. As a dad and a doctor, I would encourage Christian parents to consider the HPV vaccine as a simple, safe and effective method of keeping HPV-associated cancer from ever being a part of their children’s story.

Scott James

Scott James serves as an elder at The Church at Brook Hills. He and his wife, Jaime, have four children and live in Birmingham, Alabama, where he works as a pediatric physician. He is the author of The Expected One: Anticipating All of Jesus in the Advent, and Mission Accomplished: A Two-Week Family … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24