For immigrant women, vaccination vs. self-determination

By Michelle Chen Apr 02, 2009

Immigrants arrive prepared to make sacrifices in order to settle in this country. But amid the many economic, cultural and bureaucratic hurdles they must negotiate, they probably didn’t anticipate women’s reproductive health rights were part of the bargain. But the federal government evidently thinks otherwise. Making Contact reports on a new policy requiring immigrant women to obtain the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine as a condition of adjusting to permanent resident status. While the Bush administration rolled out the policy, health advocates began to question the safety and necessity of the vaccine. The pharmaceutical giant Merck reportedly lobbied heavily to promote the vaccine, Gardasil, marketing it as a vital protection for young women’s health. HPV is an extremely prevalent sexually transmitted disease, and some strains are linked to cervical cancer. To reproductive health activists, the vaccine mandate ties into a long legacy of oppressive reproductive health policies levied against women of color and immigrant women, including forced sterilization. The concerns about the imposition of the vaccine, even if does not directly harm women’s health, have less to do with its health benefits, per se, than with medical enfranchisement: whether immigrant status relegates certain women to a separate tier of treatment. Moreover, questions still linger about potential side effects of Gardasil, and the high cost of the vaccine could be especially burdensome for immigrants with minimal or no insurance. Jessica Arons, Director of the Women’s Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress the vaccine mandate could reflect a pattern of controlling immigration through the price of admission:

"Given Gardasil’s high cost, and the fact that there does not seem to be a public health justification for this particular mandate, I’m concerned that its real purpose is to create a financial barrier for immigrant women who seek to lawfully enter this country."

The vagaries surrounding the policy raises concerns of medical exploitation, as immigrant women essentially lack the decision-making power that citizen women have in deciding to receive the vaccine. In the political arena of women’s health, the discussion traditionally centers on choice and access, as in the right to contraception and abortion. Yet the issue of immigrants and the HPV vaccine touches on the deeper challenge of reproductive justice: ensuring all women have the resources to ensure their well-being as well as the freedom to decide what’s best their own health. Image: FIRM