You've probably seen the commercials. Over the last few months, it's been almost impossible not to see them. They parade endlessly across our screensa multitude of women of all ages, from all backgroundsand they all have the same urgent message to share: "Tell someone that human papillomavirus causes cervical cancer. Tell someone. Tell someone. Tell someone."
To which I can only respond, "We tried."
Lest you think me odd for talking to the television, let me add that I usually only do it in moments of extreme frustration. And the "Tell Someone" ads frustrate me because, for years now, friends and colleagues of mine have been trying to "tell someone," anyone, about the HPV-cervical cancer link. But no one wanted to listen.
Someone told me about HPV a few years ago when I was working at Family Research Council (FRC), a Christian public policy group in Washington, D.C. Friends and co-workers of mine there were lobbying for the addition of a warning about HPV to condom packages. Specifically, they wanted to warn people about the HPV-cancer link and the fact that condoms could not protect women against this dangerous virus.
All the way back at the turn of this century, FRC staffers Heather Farish (now Heather Cirmo) and Yvette Cantu (now Yvette Schneider) wrote in a thoroughly researched policy paper: "HPV has been linked to over 90 percent of all invasive cervical cancers, and is the number two cause of cancer deaths among women, after breast cancer. Approximately 16,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed each year, and 5,000 women die annually from this disease." To back up their statistics, they cited such prestigious sources as The New England Journal of Medicine and the Kaiser Family Foundation.
In short, just as the commercials tell us to do, they told someone.
And they were told to shut up.
A chorus of voices from the media, politicians, and organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS) derailed the condom-labeling effort, claiming that FRC and its allies were putting teenagers and young adults in danger by making condoms look bad. "What no one in the HPV brigade mentions," scoffed Sharon Lerner in the Village Voice in 1999, "is that, even by conservative estimates, a teeny number of people who have the virusfar less than 1 percentwill develop cervical cancer." The implication was that it was hardly worth putting warnings on condoms for that minuscule number of women.
How strange, then, that just eight years laterwith the same amount of information about the link between HPV and cancer, and fewer infections and deaths than we had thenthe calls to vaccinate that "teeny number" of women and girls are loud and urgent. Suddenly, the situation is dire enough that governors and legislatures in more than 20 states have either ordered mandatory HPV vaccinations, or are attempting to do so.
Of course, these recent efforts hit a snag when it came out that at least some of the lawmakers had accepted donations from Merck, the drug company that manufactures the vaccinations and came up with the ubiquitous "Tell Someone" campaign. But the call for mandatory vaccinations is still ongoingand, believe it or not, coming from the same people who used to say that HPV was no big deal and that we really needed to lower our voices.
Having turned 180 degrees in how they view the urgency of the disease, these former critics could have joined with people who had already been spreading the message for years. Instead, they attacked them.
In an article in The Nation titled "Virginity or Death!" (I'm not kidding), written when the vaccine first came out, Katha Pollitt accused Christian conservatives of wanting high HPV infection rates to undermine the case for condoms and to "try to scare kids away from sex."
"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," she wrote. "What is it with these right-wing Christians? Faced with a choice between sex and death, they choose death every time. 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."
Pollitt's rage was triggered by a quotation from Bridget Maher, who was then working for FRC (she's now at the Department of Health and Human Services). Maher had told the New Scientist, "Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex."
As Maher would later tell me, "FRC was never against the vaccine and never said they would oppose FDA approval." This is consistent with the statement on FRC's website about the vaccine. "We merely expressed some concerns about it."
Feminists could be expected to have similar concerns over lawmakers taking money from drug companies to force a brand-new vaccine on young girls. But many are apparently too busy being angry at the people who had expressed any concerns: Christians.
At this point, it's tempting just to retreat with a pout and a grumpy "They hate us no matter WHAT we say, so why bother?" We'd certainly have a point. But we can't just leave it there. Instead, we need to learn something from the bitter ironies on display here: namely, that our society will gravitate toward any message that endorses sexuality unencumbered by biblical morality. If "telling someone," as the ad campaign urges, means that they'll be advocating safe sex, all well and good. But if the cause of free sex is better served by keeping silent, the message becomes, "Tell no one." Not even if it might put her health at risk. The urge for absolute sexual autonomy and freedom from any kind of control is that powerfuland that deadly.
That's precisely why we cannot retreat when the physical and spiritual health of those around us is at stake. Our goal should always be to "tell someone" where destructive behavior can leadwhether telling someone happens to be fashionable at the moment or not.
Gina R. Dalfonzo is the editor of The Point.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also see the April Christianity Today editorial on HPV vaccination.
The National Conference of State Legislatures has a list of all states' legislation on the HPV vaccination.
The University of Pennsylvania's center for bioethics blog summarizes and links to recent ethics news about vaccines like Gardasil.
Related articles include:
How a Vaccine Search Ended in Triumph | the 70-year history behind the creation of a vaccine against human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer, is more fraught than most with blind alleys, delicate moments, humor and triumph. (The New York Times)
States Consider Requiring HPV Vaccine for Girls | Texas has become the first state to require girls to be vaccinated against the human papilloma virus. (NPR's All Things Considered)
Pro-Family, Pro-Vaccine -- But Keep It Voluntary | As expected, the advisory committee to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended that adolescent girls and young women receive Gardasil. (The Washington Post)
The Ethics and Politics of Compulsory HPV Vaccination (The New England Journal of Medicine)
Vaccine for Girls Raises Thorny Issues | Parents Weigh Anti-Cancer Benefits Against Concerns About Cost and Lost Innocence. (The Washington Post)
Defusing the War Over the "Promiscuity" Vaccine | In a recent battle in the culture wars, conservative groups were reported to be opposing a great medical breakthrough on the grounds that it might encourage kids to think that casual sex just got a little bit safer.
Other Christianity Today articles on sexuality are available on our site.
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