Who calls the shots? The ethics of adolescent self-consent for HPV vaccination

Journal of Medical Ethics
August 2018 – Volume 44 – 8

Law, ethics and medicine
Who calls the shots? The ethics of adolescent self-consent for HPV vaccination (26 July, 2018)
Suchi Agrawal, Stephanie R Morain
While the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is medically indicated to reduce the risk of genital warts and certain types of cancer, rates of HPV vaccination repeatedly fall short of public health goals. Individual-level factors contributing to low vaccination rates are well documented. However, system-level barriers, particularly the need for parental consent, have been less explored. To date, there is no legal or ethical consensus in the USA regarding whether adolescents might permissibly self-consent to the HPV vaccine. Consequently, there is considerable variability in medical practice at the provider and state level. In this essay, we explore the ethical acceptability of vaccinating adolescents for HPV without parental consent. We argue that the same ethical considerations that justify permitting minors to consent to treatment for sexual and reproductive health care—namely, public health benefit and adolescents’ developing autonomy—similarly justify permitting minors to consent to HPV vaccination. Based on this analysis, we conclude that allowing adolescents to self-consent to the HPV vaccine is ethically justifiable and should be reflected in US state policies.