April 12, 2007
At What Price Chastity?
— Jonathan Krull
Watchers of the intersection of religion with policy and science are likely aware of the vaccine that protects against Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Since HPV is a chief cause of cervical cancer, this vaccine appears to be the first to prevent cancer. About 50 percent of sexually active adults will contract HPV at some point in their lives. The American Cancer Society estimates over 9,700 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2006, and about 3,700 American women die from this cancer every year.
HPV is the leading sexually transmitted disease threat facing women, and the Center for Disease Control reports that over $2 billion is spent annually on treating cervical cancer. Mandatory vaccination of all school-aged females before they are exposed to the virus would dramatically decrease their risk of facing this dangerous cancer. Tests on 11,000 females have revealed no serious side effects. So why are some Christianists — that is, Christians who have appropriated faith for political power to pursue moralistic policy trends — vehemently opposing use of the vaccine?
There are indeed coherent arguments favoring caution in mandating the vaccine. Natural right arguments address the issue honestly, weighing health benefits versus loss of individual autonomy. And as with any new vaccine, there is the desire to gather more long-term test data. But these are not what motivate the most strident Christian opposition to a mandatory vaccination scheme.
Rather, the opposition voices what I take to be an unscrupulous moral argument. A spokesperson for the Family Research Council stated that "giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex." By a twisted logical progression, then, some extremist Christians believe that protecting women from a cancer that happens to arise from an STD amounts to condoning permissiveness, effectively encouraging girls to be promiscuous. This is their argument: "Sally, if you don't have this vaccine, you could get cancer from sex. Sex is bad outside of marriage, so you won't get this vaccine: You will be playing carcinogenic Russian roulette with sex." On this basis many Christian groups are promoting opt-out policies, so parents can use this health issue to control their children's moral choices.
But in my opinion, this argument itself is immoral, in part because it is logically baseless — a clear example of argumentum in terrorem, an appeal to fear. Apparently some of us Christians (and I am a Christian) do not believe our moral arguments against premarital sex. Instead, we terrorize girls by threatening them with cancer. Keep the maidens pure through the denial of health care and the risk of serious medical injury. Of course this is justified because we know sex is the worst sin one can commit. Putting your daughter's life in jeopardy is thus permissible — because even if she dies of cancer you have saved her soul.
Thus does the extreme fringe oppose the vaccine with this problematic "moral" argument. But even if the arguments of the extremists were valid, they would still be ignoring the plight of women who are exposed to HPV through no action of their own — for example, through a philandering husband who contracts it from a mistress. Moreover, HPV can remain dormant for years; a monogamous married couple could be exposed if one of them was sexually active prior to their relationship.
To extend a traditional argument of American justice, if the HPV vaccine causes a hundred women to feel sexually liberated, it is still morally justified if it protects just one "innocent" woman from contracting HPV or cancer. And statistics prove that this protection is certainly possible if states adopt a uniform scheme for HPV vaccination. This moral argument defeats the Christianists' claim, and gains strength from the medical evidence in favor of vaccination. Fortunately, the Christian base is not united in opposition to the vaccine. For instance, Texas governor Rick Perry — a committed Christian — should be commended for ordering vaccination for all school-age girls.
The argument against HPV vaccination belies the Christianist camp's failure to effectively communicate their message of abstinence on rational moral grounds. The history of religious extremism shows that when reasonable arguments fail, appeals to fear come close behind.
For more information about the HPV vaccine, please visit the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/STDFact-HPV-vaccine.htm.
Nancy Gibbs's article "Defusing the War Over the 'Promiscuity' Vaccine"
(Time, June 21, 2006) can be read at:
The Family Research Council addresses "sexual disinhibition"
and the HPV vaccine at:
Jonathan Krull is a freelance writer who examines the Christian faith and evangelical life in America.
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Secularism: Religious, Irreligious, and Areligious" by W. Clark Gilpin. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/.
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