By Suzanne Nelson
It's not often that conservative Christian organizations espouse a position on women's health that inspires anything other than angst from progressives. The right's stance on access to emergency contraception and the ability of pharmacists to refuse to fill birth-control prescriptions on ideological grounds -- not to mention cultural conservatives' long-standing opposition to meaningful sex ed -- has provoked a strong and a persistent counter-push by those who believe their politics put ideology before the health and lives of women.
So the story was already written before the Food and Drug Administration announced its approval last month of Gardasil, Merck's new vaccine against the human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted virus linked to cervical cancer. Most of the reporting has depicted Christian conservatives as once again playing politics with the FDA's approval process, just as they did with Plan B. Never mind that the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, two leading social conservative groups, actually issued press releases supporting FDA approval of Gardasil.
Predictably, women's groups and public health advocates blasted religious ideologues as needlessly sacrificing women's lives for the foolish notion that adolescents are more likely to have sex if they believe they are protected from a sexually transmitted virus that heretofore they had probably never heard of.
Yet in the process of engaging that discussion, we're not talking about whether giving the vaccine to pre-adolescent girls makes sense in terms of their overall health, the long-term safety of the vaccine or whether it should be required to enter school -- all subjects much more controversial than news coverage would have you believe.
As expected, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recently put the HPV shot on its recommended childhood vaccine schedule. The shot will now become de facto required for 11- and 12-year-old girls to attend school. Some states automatically use the CDC's schedule to formulate their own requirements. If recent vaccines are any guide, most, if not all, other states will follow via legislation or regulation.
But if you listen carefully to what the largest "pro-family" groups have said, none have opposed the widespread availability of the vaccine. In fact, both FRC and Focus have advised their members of compelling reasons to give their girls the vaccine even assuming they will stay abstinent until marriage. (Some of those reasons include the very real chance their daughters' future husbands many not have abstained until marriage, as well as the possibility of rape.)
Wendy Wright, executive vice president for Concerned Women for America, said she received calls from reporters who said they heard her organization was opposing the vaccine's approval but couldn't find any statement by CWFA that indicated as much. Liberals, Wright says, "kind of jumped the gun."
So if cultural conservatives haven't engaged in a systemic effort to prevent the vaccine's release -- a factual point many news organizations have blurred considerably -- then why all the fuss?
For all their panic about adolescent sex, in this debate the "pro-family" groups stand for the rather fundamental belief that parents have the right to make health decisions for their children, especially as it relates to a vaccine for a virus that is not transmitted by casual contact.
It would be difficult to tell from the caricatures held up on TV and online, but the real debate is much more substantive than the one we've been having about whether the vaccine will encourage sex outside of wedlock. And if discussed honestly, we would also have a much better chance of finding common ground than any battle in the culture wars.
Christian conservatives -- by once again driving themselves to distraction over premarital sex -- may have actually stumbled upon a position that aligns themselves with, dare we say, choice.
HPV is not a virus a kid catches by sitting next to someone at school. It is not spread by sharing juice boxes or trading germs on the bus.