Religious right would kill to stop safe sex

The Family Research Council wants to block a vaccine that may prevent human papillomavirus (HPV), the STD thought to cause around 70 percent of cervical cancer cases.

Published May 6, 2005 12:39AM (EDT)

Here's more so-crazy-it-can-only-be-a-bad-dream-and-not- the-actual-country-that-enfranchised-us news for women: As we get closer to approval for a vaccine that will prevent human papillomavirus (HPV), the STD thought to cause around 70 percent of cervical cancer cases, some sectors of the religious right have begun to make protest noises. Apparently, disease-prevention of this nature -- in addition to leading to improved health for our mothers, daughters, grandmothers, sisters, friends, and selves -- could mean just the green-light we've all been waiting for to go out and rut like bunnies.

HPV, which doesn't always produce symptoms and often goes undetected, is a terrifyingly common condition. According to the CDC, over 50 percent of sexually active men and women contract it in their lifetimes, and by age 50, more than 80 percent of women will have had the virus. While many cases of genital HPV disappear of their own accord, it's the main risk factor in contracting cervical cancer; in other words, most of the 10,370 American women who the American Cancer Society predicts will be diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer in 2005 got it because they had been infected with HPV.

Because it is a wily virus that can slip past condoms, HPV has long been a darling of the abstinence-only brigade, which uses it as Exhibit A in its argument that there is no such thing as "safe sex" short of abstaining entirely.

But two vaccines, which could be licensed as early next year, have recently brightened the picture. Both Merck and GlaxoSmithKline have announced that in clinical trials their HPV vaccines had prevented around 90 percent of new infections. The idea is that women would be vaccinated before they become sexually active, never contract HPV, and thus dramatically lower the risk of getting cervical cancer.

If the vaccines got approved, there is the possibility that HPV would cease to be a threat to women, and the right would lose one of its major weapons in the war against premarital sex. Perhaps that explains why some groups are in such a bad mood over such good medical news.

In an April article in New Scientist, Bridget Maher of the Christian lobby Family Research Council ("Defending Family, Faith, and Freedom") is quoted as saying that "giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex."

The HPV vaccine is new to the list of things that the religious right perceives to be "licenses to engage in premarital sex." But it's in good company -- joining other morality-busters like condoms, the right to safe abortions, sex education, dancing, rock music, and the theory of evolution -- as threats to American moral codes.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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