Sex? Or cancer?

Perhaps you’ve read about the new vaccine against cervical cancer? Apparently, it’s “virtually 100% effective” against the most common strains of human papilloma virus that cause the disease. Would you not expect the arrival of a vaccine against a deadly cancer to be heralded with joy and triumph from everyone?

Ah, surely you’ve underestimated the Christian right. You see, some people are apparently afraid that immunizing prepubescent girls against cervical cancer might send “a subtle message condoning sexual activity before marriage.”

Alas for the rougly 10,000 women a year who may develop the disease, HPV is sexually-transmitted, which means the guardians of moral purity in America have decided that its prevention is dangerous.

“Some people have raised the issue of whether this vaccine may be sending an overall message to teenagers that, ‘We expect you to be sexually active,'” said Reginald Finger, a doctor trained in public health who served as a medical analyst for Focus on the Family before being appointed to the ACIP in 2003, in a telephone interview.

“There are people who sense that it could cause people to feel like sexual behaviors are safer if they are vaccinated and may lead to more sexual behavior because they feel safe,” said Finger, emphasizing that he does not endorse that position and is withholding judgment until the issue comes before the vaccine policy panel for a formal recommendation.

Let’s, for the moment, leave aside how realistic it is that vaccinating a 12 year old girl against cervical cancer really would encourage her to run out and have sex (since I’m pretty sure cervical cancer is near the bottom of the list of fears young people have about sex, somewhere below pregnancy, AIDS, herpes, and “am I doing it right?”).

Let’s also set aside the ridiculous idea that vaccination and abstinence are somehow mutually exclusive, as if vaccination somehow causes pre-marital sex:

“I’ve talked to some who have said, ‘This is going to sabotage our abstinence message,’ ” said Gene Rudd, associate executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations…. “Parents should have the choice. There are those who would say, ‘We can provide a better, healthier alternative than the vaccine, and that is to teach abstinence,’ ” Rudd said.

For the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that the tendentious proposition put forth by Dr. Finger (his actual name!) is true, and that providing a vaccination to young women somehow increases the likelihood that they’ll run out of the doctor’s office into the back seat of some guy’s car. To decide whether or not you favor vaccination, then, you must make a moral calculation about the risks involved in either providing or withholding the vaccine. On the one hand, there’s the possibility that a young woman might get vaccinated, have sex, and not get cancer. On the other hand, there’s the possibility that a young woman might not get vaccinated, still have sex (since no one’s claiming that withholding the vaccine guarantees abstinence), and, possibly, get cancer and die.

It seems to me that opposing mandatory vaccination is reducible to claiming that is worse for a woman to have sex and not get cancer than it is for that woman to have sex and get cancer.

What kind of twisted, punitive, misogynistic logic would lead someone to insist that cancer (cancer!) be a consequence of behavior they find objectionable? (Here’s a hint: it’s the same logic that insists that pregnancy be a consequence of such behavior.) Abortion, contraception, and now cervical cancer: what a world.

Update: Unsurprisingly, I’m not alone in my dismay. Andrew Sullivan and Matthew Yglesias weigh in.

Sex? Or cancer?