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.

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
Show Hide image

Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.