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.