It's outrageous to deny girls the cervical cancer vaccine on spurious religious grounds

A textbook moral panic is unsupported by facts.

Like most British children, my school days were peppered with occasional visits from a nurse with mysterious jabs known as "vaccinations". We queued up outside a special room, then trooped in one by one for a shot in the arm, before being rewarded with some sort of sweet.

I didn't pay much attention to the contents of the syringe being injected into my arm. Why would I? The school and my parents, the twin stars of authority in my world, decreed it.

At no point did I think: "TB jab, you say? Whoopee! Now I can go get consumptive people to cough in my face, for kicks!"

That's why I've always been sceptical by the arguments advanced by religious pressure groups (and given plenty of coverage in the papers such as the Mail and Express) that the cervical cancer vaccine should not be given to schoolgirls, because "it will encourage promiscuity".

This is the kind of thing that campaigners say:

"There is already evidence that the vaccine is giving some girls a false sense of security and leading them to think that because they have been vaccinated they are protected against the worst effects of sexual promiscuity and can therefore engage in casual sex without consequence."

That quote comes from Norman Wells, "of the pressure group Family and Youth Concern". Mr Wells inexplicably fails to cite the evidence that he has, and the paper involved inexplicably fails to ask him for it. It also doesn't give you much of a clue about his background, other than that delightfully vague "pressure group". (A look at the Family Education Trust website gives a better idea; it was formed as a reaction to the "permissive society".)

Mr Wells is also apparently unaware of a little thing we ladies like to call "pregnancy", which was definitely loomed far larger in the worries of my sexually active classmates than the possibility of some disease decades in the future. 

Anyway, if you're interested, the story of the cervical cancer vaccine (actually a vaccine against human papilloma virus, which causes the majority of all cases of the cancer) is a textbook case of moral panic. What should have been an amazing scientific breakthrough, welcomed by all - we can cure a disease which killed thousands of women, with a single injection! - turned into a lot of people's opportunity to complain about the 1960s and worry about young girls having sex (and that's always how it was framed, despite the fact that they presumably weren't ALL having sex with each other). 

There were even some valiant attempts to get the Ole MMR Show back on the road, with articles about girls who'd suffered mysterious illnesses soon after they'd had their jabs. (Here's a fantastic example of "penultimate paragraph syndrome" - an entire science story dismissed right at the bottom by the folks with the evidence.) And, of course, we can't just wait until the girls are old enough to decide for themselves, because once you're infected with HPV, there's no going back.

The worst thing is that four years after the vaccine was approved for use and rolled out, the legacy of all the "promiscuity" scare-mongering continues. An investigation by GP magazine found that at least 24 schools do not offer the vaccine for "religious reasons", and many of these did not inform parents and pupils that it was available elsewhere. (There may be more than 24 schools who do this, as only 83 of 152 of England's primary care trust areas were surveyed.)

Press Association reported this news with the following hilarious paragraph:

Some schools in England have opted out of the HPV vaccination programme because their pupils follow strict Christian principles and do not have sex outside marriage.

Yeah, totally. I went to a convent school, where we had absolutely minimal sex education and one of our teachers told us Christians believed "every period was God's tear for a lost opportunity". Despite being immersed in a warm bath of Catholicism, several girls I knew got pregnant. (I'm guessing that, what, 50 per cent of those girls had probably had sex? Maybe more. Maybe.) 

This situation would be funny, if it weren't so sad. Religious pressure groups decided, on evidence which is mysteriously missing in all news reports, that the cervical cancer vaccine encourages promiscuity. Aided by editors looking for another excuse to angsty over teenage girls' sex lives, they managed to create an illusion of controversy over this jab. And now, the circle is complete as religious schools deny their pupils a potentially lifesaving intervention, not just on religious grounds - but spurious religious grounds. 

Oh, and in case you're wondering, 957 women died of cervical cancer in the last year for which figures are available.

A 13-year-old girl receives the HPV vaccination. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war