Maybe it is easy for those of us who are not TDs to say we do not believe some distressed parents are correct to be convinced that their daughters have been damaged by the HPV vaccine. We are not depending on these parents, and their social circle, to vote for us and prolong our political careers.
Sadly, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, in some cases, TDs are pandering to the distress of mothers and fathers in return for their electoral support.
Finian McGrath found himself in hot water this week over his confusing attitude to the lifesaving Gardasil vaccine, which protects girls from developing most forms of cervical cancer when they are adults. It is offered free to all girls during their first year at secondary school.
Close to the end of his time in opposition Mr McGrath, who is now a Minister of State at the Department of Health, submitted a parliamentary question calling for the removal of the vaccine as a matter of priority.
He then stood over his previously expressed opposition, and the sloppiness of his comments, given last week to the Sunday Times, infuriated Government colleagues who had just rolled out a campaign to address parents’ concerns and encourage take-up.
“I think somewhere in the region of 30 per cent of reported events are categorised as very serious . . . I think that’s in the UK. I’m 99 per cent sure. It’s something I saw earlier on in the office, I’m nearly positive,” he told the newspaper’s reporter Mark Tighe.
The view seems to be that when a constituent comes asking you to ask questions, you just do it, regardless of the consequences
By the middle of this week, however, Mr McGrath was insisting there was “no equivocation” in his current view of the campaign, although he said he would “always reserve the right to raise people’s concerns”.
But his originally intervention was really just the tip of the iceberg.
Readers might be surprised at how often TDs of all parties and none have raised the topic in the Dáil in recent times.
The matter was mentioned 130 times by deputies in the form of questions and comments between the start of the 32nd Dáil, in March 2016, and this July, when it rose for the summer.
Less than 15 per cent of those comments could be construed as supportive of the vaccine, according to the Irish Cancer Society.
Thirty-five TDs either submitted parliamentary questions or spoke about the issue at a committee, with a small minority offering explicit support.
The deputy who asked the most questions about the HPV vaccine was Michael Fitzmaurice, the Independent from Roscommon-Galway, who posed 15 of them. The Fianna Fáil TD Robert Troy, who represents Longford-Westmeath, and the Independents 4 Change deputy Clare Daly, from Dublin Fingal, asked 13 questions each.
Some TDs say they are merely passing on constituents’ concerns neutrally, and sometimes that is the case. “I’m not a doctor or a medical expert,” is a common refrain. Many say they would never advise parents not to have their daughters vaccinated.
A widely held view seems to be that when a constituent comes asking you to ask questions, you just do it, regardless of the consequences.
One of the positive aspects of our much-derided clientelist system of politics is the relatively easy access constituents get to the politicians elected to represent them in the national parliament.
And, on a human level, anyone can understand the shattering impact on a TD when a neighbour’s child with an unexplained and debilitating illness is brought to his or her clinic or home.
Promising the distraught parents that a parliamentary question will be put can seem like a humane response.
But can TDs really absolve themselves of their moral responsibilities in this way?
Even today, what TDs say and do can still influence how their constituents act. It is interesting to note that some of the constituencies with TDs who were frequent questioners, such as Roscommon-Galway, Longford-Westmeath and Kerry, have had slightly lower-than-average take up of the vaccine historically.
And the language contained in some of the questions is very similar to conspiracy theories touted by anti-vaccine groups.
One of those who spoke in favour of the vaccine was the Fine Gael backbencher and pharmacist Kate O'Connell, who delivered a sobering warning during a meeting of the Oireachtas Health Committee in May.
“If we do not vaccinate correctly, many girls who are eight-years-old and who are walking around in flowery skirts will be dead by the time they are 40,” she said.
About 300 women in Ireland are diagnosed with cervical cancer caused by HPV every year, and 90 of those die from the disease
In March, the Sinn Féin TD Kathleen Funchion, from Carlow-Kilkenny, asked the Minister for Health for “his views on the fact that by continuing with the HPV vaccination programme there will be a further percentage of girls displaying serious medical difficulties if action is not taken now”.
A healthy scepticism in the face of authority is one of the positive hallmarks of our times. Parents are no longer overly deferential to doctors, and are more informed about their children’s healthcare than any previous generation was.
Indeed, the Thalidomide scandal remains relatively fresh in the collective memory. Less than 60 years ago many women in the early weeks of pregnancy had innocently taken the drug to ease their morning sickness, unaware of its terrible effect on the children they were carrying.
But the facts about cervical cancer are stark. Each year in Ireland more than 6,500 women need hospital treatment for precancer of the cervix.
About 300 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer caused by HPV every year, and 90 of those die from the disease.
The prominent Tory MP Michael Gove famously said he thought people in Britain had had enough of experts. That was shortly before the United Kingdom voted in favour of Brexit.
Let’s hope the Irish people don’t lose faith in experts where matters of life and death are concerned.