Imagine a vaccine that would protect women from a serious gynecological cancer. Wouldn't that be great? Well, both Merck and GlaxoSmithKline recently announced that they have conducted successful trials of vaccines that protect against the human papilloma virus. HPV is not only an incredibly widespread sexually transmitted infection but is responsible for at least 70 percent of cases of cervical cancer, which is diagnosed in 10,000 American women a year and kills 4,000.
Wonderful, you are probably thinking, all we need to do is vaccinate girls (and boys too for good measure) before they become sexually active, around puberty, and HPV -- and, in thirty or forty years, seven in ten cases of cervical cancer -- goes poof.
Not so fast: We're living in God's country now. The Christian right doesn't like the sound of this vaccine at all. "Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful," Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council told the British magazine New Scientist, "because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex." Raise your hand if you think that what is keeping girls virgins now is the threat of getting cervical cancer when they are 60 from a disease they've probably never heard of.
I remember when people rolled their eyeballs if you suggested that opposition to abortion was less about "life" than about sex, especially sex for women. You have to admit that thesis is looking pretty solid these days. No matter what the consequences of sex -- pregnancy, disease, death -- abstinence for singles is the only answer. Just as it's better for gays to get AIDS than use condoms, it's better for a woman to get cancer than have sex before marriage. It's honor killing on the installment plan.
Christian conservatives have a special reason to be less than thrilled about the HPV vaccine. Although not as famous as chlamydia or herpes, HPV has the distinction of not being preventable by condoms. It's Exhibit A in those gory high school slide shows that try to scare kids away from sex, and it is also useful for undermining the case for rubbers generally -- why bother when you could get HPV anyway? In 2000, Congressman (now Senator) Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who used to give gruesome lectures on HPV for young Congressional aides, even used HPV to propose warning labels on condoms.
With HPV potentially eliminated, the antisex brigade will lose a card it has regarded as a trump unless it can persuade parents that vaccinating their daughters will turn them into tramps, and that sex today is worse than cancer tomorrow. According to New Scientist, 80 percent of parents want the vaccine for their daughters -- but their priests and pastors haven't worked them over yet.
What is it with these right-wing Christians? Faced with a choice between sex and death, they choose death every time. No sex ed or contraception for teens, no sex for the unwed, no condoms for gays, no abortion for anyone -- even for that poor 13-year-old pregnant girl in a group home in Florida. I would really like to hear the persuasive argument that this middle-schooler with no home and no family would have been better off giving birth against her will, and that the State of Florida, which totally failed to keep her safe, should have been allowed, against its own laws, to compel this child to bear a child. She was too young to have sex, too young to know her own mind about abortion -- but not too young to be forced onto the delivery table for one of the most painful experiences human beings endure, in which the risk of death for her was three times as great as in abortion. Ah, Christian compassion! Christian sadism, more likely. It was the courts that showed humanity when they let the girl terminate her pregnancy.
As they flex their political muscle, right-wing Christians increasingly reveal their condescending view of women as moral children who need to be kept in line sexually by fear. That's why anti-choicers will never answer the call of pro-choicers to join them in reducing abortions by making birth control more widely available: They want it to be less available. Their real interest goes way beyond protecting fetuses -- it's in keeping sex tied to reproduction to keep women in their place. If preventing abortion was what they cared about, they'd be giving birth control and emergency contraception away on street corners instead of supporting pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions and hospitals that don't tell rape victims about the existence of EC. David Hager (see Ayelish McGarvey's stunning exposé, and keep in mind that unlike godless me she is a churchgoing evangelical Christian) would never use his position with the FDA to impose his personal views of sexual morality on women in crisis. Instead of blocking nonprescription status for emergency contraception on the specious grounds that it will encourage teen promiscuity, he would take note of the six studies, three including teens, that show no relation between sexual activity and access to EC. He would be calling the loudest for Plan B to be stocked with the toothpaste in every drugstore in the land. How sexist is denial of Plan B? Anti-choicers may pooh-pooh the effectiveness of condoms, but they aren't calling to restrict their sale in order to keep boys chaste.
While the FDA dithers, the case against selling EC over the counter weakens by the day. Besides the now exploded argument that it will let teens run wild, opponents argue that it prevents implantation of a fertilized egg -- which would make it an "abortifacient" if you believe that pregnancy begins when sperm and egg unite. However, new research by the Population Council shows that EC doesn't work by blocking implantation; it only prevents ovulation. True, it's not possible to say it never blocks implantation, James Trussell, director of the Office of Population Research at Princeton, told me, and to anti-choice hard-liners once in a thousand times is enough. But then, many things can block implantation, including breast-feeding. Are the reverends going to come out for formula-feeding now?
"It all comes down to the evils of sex," says Trussell. "That's an ideological position impervious to empirical evidence."
"Subject to Debate" columnist Katha Pollitt has written for The Nation since 1980.
By Katha Pollitt
Reprinted with permission from The Nation