Abstinence-only crowd laments cancer breakthrough

November 14, 2005|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- There was a time when only the loony left believed that the loony right favored death over sex. Not anymore.

If you've been engrossed in the culture-war correspondence on the judicial front, maybe you missed the news on the medical front. While the religious right escorted Harriet Miers out and welcomed Samuel A. Alito Jr. in, a group of scientists announced the beginning of the end of a deadly cancer.

In clinical trials, a new vaccine was 100 percent successful in preventing the virus that causes most cervical cancer, the second-leading cancer killer of women in the world. Every year, about 10,000 American women are diagnosed with it and nearly 4,000 die. It now appears that with government approval and funding, we're on our way to ending this scourge.

Needless to say, the success story was greeted with cork-popping enthusiasm by doctors. Eliav Barr of the beleaguered Merck, one of the two companies to develop a vaccine, offered a toast: "This is it. This is the Holy Grail."

But it appears that social conservatives aren't drinking from the same chalice.

This was the response of Leslie Unruh of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse: "I personally object to vaccinating children against a disease that is 100 percent preventable with proper sexual behavior." The honchos at the Family Research Council said tepidly that they "welcome medical advances," but with a very frayed welcome mat. FRC's Tony Perkins said he would not inoculate his daughter: "It sends the wrong message. Our concern is that this vaccine will be marketed to a segment of the population that should be getting a message about abstinence." Meanwhile, Gene Rudd of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations acknowledges the worries of fellow travelers: "I've talked to some who have said, `This is going to sabotage our abstinence message.'" Success or sabotage? Which is it?

At the heart of the debate is that the vaccine works against the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is sexually transmitted. Since HPV is transmitted skin to skin, not just through intercourse, condoms aren't wholly effective against it.

This has made HPV one of the most useful tools in the kit bag of fear carried by those who like to describe condom use as "Russian roulette." Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma cites HPV in the campaign to get the Food and Drug Administration to pin new labels on condoms to emphasize why and when they don't work. Abstinence-only teachers use HPV repeatedly in manuals that say students must be told that choosing sex might be choosing cancer.

This vaccine would have to be given to preteens before they are sexually active. If that gives them the "wrong message" - that we expect they'll have premarital sex - what exactly is the "right message"? That we care more about their virginity than their life?

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, found that two-thirds of the abstinence-only education programs are teaching the "right message" with the wrong science. Your tax dollars are at work - to the tune of $1 billion - teaching students that touching another person's genitals "can result in pregnancy," that "there's no such thing as `safe' or `safer' sex" and that loneliness, embarrassment, substance abuse and disappointment "can be eliminated by being abstinent until marriage."

What will happen when the government's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices considers adding the cervical cancer vaccine to the list given routinely to children? Will conservatives prevail over doctors and parents who want to add another layer of protection to the vows of abstinence?

I always thought it was a bit much to talk about a "Taliban wing" of the Republican Party. After all, the real Taliban stoned women to death if they had sex out of wedlock. What sentence would our Taliban choose? Cancer?

Success or sabotage? Watch how easy it can be to sabotage a success story.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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