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
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

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