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18 July 2012

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

A textbook moral panic is unsupported by facts.

By Helen Lewis

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:

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“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.