On Sunday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a new law which allows minors to access STD-prevention services, including the now highly political HPV vaccine, without parental consent. California already allowed teens to access many other types of confidential care including contraception, pregnancy care, mental health care, and drug abuse treatment. The author of the bill says that it merely updates state law to include newer treatment options including the HPV vaccine, vaccines for Hepatitis, and drug regimens that can prevent HIV transmission when taken after exposure to the virus.
Still, because sex was involved the headlines focused on “children as young as 12” and many opponents urged the governor not to sign the bill. The Bishop of the Sacramento Diocese, Jaime Soto, said the law undermines parents’ relationship with teens: “I am very concerned the governor has done something that has really pushed parents aside…I’m dismayed that the governor would put aside the voices of so many families who said that this is not right.” Others reiterated old (and tired) arguments that the HPV vaccine will lead to rampant promiscuity. Randy Thomasson, president of SaveCalifornia.com, “worried the law will deceive preteen girls into believing they can freely engage in sexual activity without risk.”
Several parents were quoted in articles as being concerned that their children would receive any medical care without their knowledge. One mother of a teenage daughter explained: “I think it’s wrong, because we need to know. What if something happened to [our teenage kids] and we didn’t know?” As the mother of two daughters, I can relate to her concern though I think the law is not the problem. My children at 1 and 5 are still at an age where I know where they are and roughly what they are doing at any given moment. I certainly know all of the medication they have taken and I have missed only two trips to the doctor between them. There is a certain amount of comfort in that level of knowledge and control, and I am dreading their independence as much as I am looking forward to it.
That said, I believe the responsibility for open and honest communication about sexuality and health care falls on the parents not the kids and we all know that some parents fall down on this job. Most young people become sexually active at some point during high school and some of them cannot talk about their sexual health with their parents. It would be wrong to deny these teens potentially life-saving prevention services (remember the HPV vaccine protects not just against an STD but against cervical cancer).
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The law provides an important safeguard that allows these teens to protect their health and well-being. Now it’s the responsibility of educators and health care providers to encourage young people and parents to talk each other about these important issues.