Debate intensifies over HPV vaccine

Conservative groups are divided over whether fighting cancer is such a good idea.

Published November 23, 2005 7:03PM (EST)

Reuters reported yesterday that conservative groups appear to be divided -- or on the fence -- about a vaccine that could prevent the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV). Certain subspecies of HPV are the leading cause of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is thought to kill nearly 4,000 women a year.

The Christian Medical and Dental Associations -- which opposes over-the-counter sales of emergency contraception -- has, remarkably, spoken in favor of the vaccine. What's so "remarkable" about wanting to prevent cancer? Nothing, unless you recall that -- especially considering that the drug's manufacturers plan to recommend routine vaccines for children as young as 10 -- such a message doesn't exactly jibe with conservatives' preferred anti-reality inoculation: abstinence-only education.

As Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council recently told New Scientist, "Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV. Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex" (though, as the article points out, "it is arguable how many young women have even heard of the virus").

Gross as this "We support a culture of life, except for the slutty girls who deserve to get cancer" position is, what's really behind it is this: Groups like the FRC need HPV around. Why? Because HPV is the Kitty Pryde of STDs. Like the only member of the X-Men who can pass through walls, it's the only sexually transmitted infection against which condoms are virtually powerless. (Concerns about the degree to which condoms prevent herpes have largely been allayed.) And as such, as Katha Pollitt and others have pointed out, HPV is the abstinence people's anti-condom nuclear option. As long as it's around, they can claim that condoms are not 100 percent effective against sexually transmitted diseases (and somehow leap from there to say, "Therefore, you shouldn't use them").

So it's interesting that some of the most strident organizations are not -- yet -- opposing the vaccine outright. "People do seem more willing to take risks if they think they are not going to suffer consequences," Wendy Wright, executive vice president of Concerned Women for America, told Reuters. According to the article, "She said she was 'encouraged' Merck was pitching the vaccine as preventing cancer, rather than a sexually transmitted infection. That could avoid 'the very touchy issue of how this virus is transmitted,' she said." 'Cause we certainly wouldn't want to tell the kids about that.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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