We’ve all heard the story before: The religious right is all up in arms about an HPV vaccine that could prevent cervical cancer and save the lives of thousands of women because they think it might encourage pre-marital sex.
Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will determine whether Gardasil — which has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a guard against the cancer-causing human papilloma virus, or HPV, for girls and women ages 9 to 26 — should be widely used. The panel’s decision would establish whether private insurers and the government would cover the cost of such vaccinations. By recommending that Gardasil be universally administered to girls ages 11-12, the committee can facilitate widespread vaccination and enable all girls and women to protect themselves from a sexually transmitted infection that the CDC says 80% of American women will have by age 50.
Opponents of the vaccine argue that abstinence is a “foolproof” alternative that negates the need for mandatory vaccination. These groups believe that vaccination will act to lower young women’s sexual inhibitions and promote risky sexual behavior, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.
Minus the “foolproof.”. A few things: First, rape. Second, an inability for conservatives to talk frankly about sex, leading lots of young people to equate “abstinence” with “virginity” and still put themselves at risk for STIs. Third, the entire history of the human race, throughout which there has never been a time when all people were perfectly abstinent until marriage. But I suppose these are just silly details.
Lunatic fringe, you say? Not anymore. Such beliefs are held by some Bush administration appointees. One of them — Reginald Finger, a medical doctor and a member of the CDC committee — is a believer in “just say no” as the preferred protection against HPV. Until last fall, Finger was a medical issues analyst for Focus on the Family, an ultraconservative group that advocates “abstinence until marriage and faithfulness after marriage as the best and primary practice in preventing HPV” and other sexually transmitted infections.
The group’s position is not based on science. Focus on the Family believes that abstinence “is better protection than any vaccine because it’s God’s plan for people before they are married.”
So the people who are making decisions about your daughters’ reproductive health are the same ones who would have her die of cancer as punishment for having sex. Feeling concerned yet?
The latest tactic of the religious right is to argue that they don’t oppose the vaccine per se, but that they’re against this “culture of vaccinations” in which kids are over-vaccinated and parents have no say in the matter. “It’s about choice!” they now argue. “These mandatory vaccines are an affront to privacy and individual rights!”
Putting aside the obvious question of, “Since when does the religious right care at all about privacy?”, we need to point out the fact that their argument is basically a non-starter:
Forty-eight states already allow religious exemptions for individuals wishing to forgo any kind of vaccination. Many states also allow a philosophical exemption for vaccinations. By saying they oppose only mandatory vaccinations, extremist social conservatives stealthily undermine the HPV vaccine — backing away from their earlier, more public general opposition — and continue to promote their religious beliefs at the expense of women’s health.
So if they don’t want to be vaccinated for religious reasons, they don’t have to be. But they use the ignorance of the general public as a weapon against the vaccine in general. Because it’s not just about their personal right, or even their childrens’ rights, to remain unvaccinated — they want to make sure that no one has access to this life-saving vaccine.
This is a familiar pattern. Administration appointees have delayed FDA approval for making emergency contraception available without a prescription. Yet, unprecedented federal funding has been dedicated to promoting abstinence-only programs — $206 million proposed for next year — that preach false and misleading information while ignoring vital sexuality education.
Much of this funding also has been allocated to “crisis pregnancy centers” — clinics run by antiabortion groups that design and promote curricula full of inaccuracies, scare tactics and gender stereotypes. A widely used curriculum, designed by the Tennessee crisis pregnancy center Why kNOw, for instance, suggestively asks students whether condoms are “just another stupid idea.”
And we wonder why we have such a high rate of unintended pregnancies and STIs.
By touting abstinence until marriage as salvation from the perils of premarital sex, the administration favors and funds religious advocacy. The fact is, many women do not remain sexually abstinent until marriage. More than 70% of the female respondents to a CDC survey reported having sex by the time they were 19. It would be one thing if this were merely a charged cultural debate on social mores, but the debate threatens to undermine girls’ health.
The fact that we’re even debating this is evidence of a pretty sick culture.
Inoculation against HPV is particularly important for ensuring that girls and women who are victims of rape or incest are protected from contracting the potentially deadly virus. To be truly effective, the vaccine, like sexuality education, must be given to all teens well before any become sexually active.
Yes. And I’d like to emphasize the “all teens” — that would include boys.
Let’s hope the advisory committee makes the right decision. I have faith that they will.
(And as a side note, have I mentioned lately how much I love the LA Times? Back in the day when I wanted to be a journalist, my big dream was to get a job with them. Lordy they’re fantastic.)