Monday, February 19, 2007

Pro-Life community prefers cancer to sex

...and I smell a rat on both sides of the debate.

The Human Papilloma Virus (actually a number of different viruses) or HPV, causes genital warts and about 70% of all cases of cervical cancer. It is not fully blocked by condoms, and doesn't require full penetrative intercourse for transmission. Infection rates are very high, and while the infection rate increases with the number of sexual partners, it doesn't take many to give a very high risk: one study found that over a third of school girls who had only a single sexual partner were infected. Admittedly, they were a high-risk cohort, and that figure probably doesn't hold for the wider population. Nevertheless, the HPV virus is moderately dangerous, and really, really good at spreading, and the virus doesn't care what your morals are. The overall infection rate for the general population in the USA is probably somewhere between twenty and forty percent. (Statistics suggest that infection rates are significantly lower amongst liberal nations with a positive attitude towards sex, like Finland. I'm just saying.)

So why is the HPV vaccine controversial?

Naturally, the "Culture of Life" is up in arms against it. As Mark Kleiman from the Reality-Based Community points out, Right To Lifers have come out from under their rocks to either oppose it outright, or to defend the right of irresponsible parents to let their daughters get cancer by making the vaccine Opt In rather than Opt Out. The argument I see again and again and again is "it will reduce the consequences of having sex" -- like that's a bad thing.

Imagine the "Culture of Life" arguing against refrigerators and pasteurization, because they reduce the harmful consequences of food poisoning. Imagine they argued against seat belts and air bags and ABS braking systems, because they reduce the harmful consequences of car crashes. Wouldn't people say "Of course they reduce the consequences, that's the whole point you moron!"?

It just goes to show our crazy attitudes to sex that even the supporters of the HPV vaccine merely argue that the vaccine won't necessarily encourage women to have sex, instead of coming right out and saying that it is a good thing that it will reduce the harmful consequences of having sex.

But naturally, things aren't always as they seem... if you scratch beneath the surface of the HPV controversy, things become a little murkier. Yes, the wingnuts are against it for all the wrong reasons. But I wonder whether being against it is the right position to take?

Libertarian Jane Galt wonders why there is so much opposition to the vaccine. Naturally, most of the responses on her blog are from libertarians, so the arguments basically boil down to four kinds:

  • "My body, you won't tell me what to do, I'll cut my daughter's nose of to spite her face if you try!"

  • "Nobody tells me what I should spend my money on!"

  • "If the sluts would just keep their legs closed, this wouldn't be a problem."

  • Misunderstandings of the medical evidence and faulty analogies with thalidomide.

But buried within the mass of bad reasoning and emotive arguments are a few disquieting facts about the way the vaccination campaign has been handled by the pharmaceutical company behind it, Merck. The push for mass HPV vaccinations seems to have been handled with unseemly haste, given the actual risk of cervical cancer from HPV. I'm hardly one of those luddites who see thalidomide behind every medical advance, but I'd like to see a little more long-term data on the vaccine before we rush off and give it to every schoolgirl over the age of nine.

And then there is the stink of corruption: Texas governor Rick Perry (who has close ties with Merck) has pushed mandatory vaccination through under a very curious condition: under the law, the Legislature is prevented from repealing the law.

Hmmm. Something is rotten in the state of Texas. I'm in favour of vaccination, I'm even in favour of compulsory vaccination in principle (although compulsion isn't on the table here -- the "mandatory" is a poorly chosen term meaning Opt Out). But the way this is being handled just smells wrong to me.

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