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Ideology won't prevent cancer

June 29, 2006|Julie F. Kay | JULIE F. KAY is a staff attorney at Legal Momentum, a national legal advocacy organization seeking to expand the rights and opportunities of women and girls.

A VACCINE proved to dramatically reduce cervical cancer, the second most common form of cancer among women, would be expected to sail through federal approval processes. Yet getting such a vaccine to the people who would benefit the most from it is no sure thing, thanks to those promoting an ideology that any sex outside (heterosexual) marriage is wrong. A far-right political agenda should not be allowed, again, to threaten women's health.

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.

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."

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.

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."

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.

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.

Let's hope the advisory committee chooses widespread vaccination rather than caving to sexual conservatism.

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