Few does not always mean insignificant

Early in the week, I cut a short news clipping out of i, caught by its headline ‘Cervical cancer tests banned on religious grounds’ (differently titled online), sourced from an investigation by GP magazine.

Being of the secular atheist bent, my interest was immediately piqued (even though the title is misleading – ‘tests’ ?) by reading that ‘some schools’ are not providing human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination, as is now routinely administered to 12-13 year-old girls. Schools are not legally compelled to comply with this programme. What was most disturbing, however, was the final brief one-sentence paragraph, revealing that most of these particular schools were not informing the unvaccinated children’s GPs – in effect wilfully hindering their access to protection.

Rather than seek out the other ’ churnalism ’ pieces, I wanted to read the source story, because, I presumed, it would be longer, more informative and detailed. But I was unable to access the GP story – ‘GPs not told of school HPV opt-outs’ – via its website, because I’m not a GP. However, on a visit to my GP’s surgery on Friday, I managed to blag its copy.

What I was interested in, aside from the absurdity of being able to exercise an opt-out from participation in an important public health measure on ‘religious grounds’, was the names of the schools and Primary Care Trusts concerned, with the intention, if there was one in my locality, of at least bringing this to the attention of my MP.

I learnt that 83 PCTs (of 152 in England) had responded to a Freedom of Information request; of these, fifteen include at least one school refusing its pupils’ inclusion in the HPV vaccination programme. The actual number of schools was unclear: of these fifteen PCTs, thirteen stated they either did not inform the relevant GPs, or were unclear on whether they had done so. Still, however, these PCTs/schools were not named.

So, a couple of days after e-mailing the story’s author for more details to no effect, I conducted a bit more searching. And I landed (again) upon this anti-secularist, church and state amalgamation, which in turn directed me to the Theos take on this issue.

(Both these sites also couple with comment on the Free School-creationism issue, also in the news last week, and which I won’t comment on here and now, but there is a thread over here, and a BHA-provided facility for contacting your MP and Michael Gove, should you feel driven.)

Theos has managed to obtain the data (available here). And both Elizabeth Hunter of Theos and Gillan Scott, whose mouthpiece God and Politics in the UK is, rightly stress that the numbers of schools (expressly denying HPV vaccination on religious grounds) is actually very small, and also rightly decry the sensationalist nature of the newspaper headlines, which can be read as to give the misleading impression that the number of schools denying children the vaccine on religious grounds is significant. Statistically it is not. But that does not mean objection is unwarranted.

Theos states:

‘Some writers seem to have extrapolated from the fact that a school that didn’t give the jab was religious to the conclusion that they had refused to give the vaccine for religious reasons. There is little evidence in the Freedom of Information requests to back this up.’

Aside from it not being immediately obvious why a non-HPV-vaccinating religious school would have any reasons not to vaccinate other than religious ones (unless under the influence of some general anti-vaccination wackery), it ought to be noted that the data is incomplete: 69 (45%) of the 152 PCTs did not respond to the Freedom of Information request. Whether this would affect the numbers, we don’t know. But so what?

Unlike God and Politics in the UK, the Theos article avoids (despite conceding that ’… a small number of schools (are) neglecting to give important medical care to students on religious grounds…’) any actual support of the HPV vaccination programme; although both are seemingly primarily concerned with a defence of establishment religion and faith schools. And both argue that, because the number of concerned schools is small, it’s not worth making a big hullabaloo of. Well, hindering a child’s access to an important national health programme is, I would argue, contrary to their human rights, which are no less, simply because there are few of them affected. And, despite support for the programme – hence a reluctant admission of agreement with the secular argument – Gillan Scott’s God and Politics in the UK incongruously-titled article seemingly ridicules schools’ assumed promotion of, whilst simultaneously endorsing, the abstinence agenda.

Just because the number of culpably irresponsible schools is small, that is not, as Scott rightly argues, an excuse to defensively sweep it under the carpet by bleating on about the media and secular groups giving religion a hard time. Such wilful inaction by schools/PCTs is ethically indefensible. Unqualifiedly.

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