Thursday, November 21, 2002

I'll be very interested to see the reaction of abstinence advocates and other conservatives to the news that researchers have developed a vaccine that prevents transmission of a form of the human papilloma virus (HPV) known to lead to cervical cancer, and that another group of researchers has developed a vaccine that shows promise in preventing genital herpes in women.

A trump card of the abstinence movement is its assertion that condoms aren't effective in preventing HPV transmission, which, alas, is true; less convincingly, abstinence advocates also insist that condoms aren't very good at preventing herpes transmission (in fact, a 2001 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that condoms offer "significant protection against" herpes infection in women).

If it reduces the risks of sex, religious conservatives are likely to issue dire warnings about it. They are certain that abortion causes breast cancer. They darkly suggest that the Pill causes spontaneous abortions. And they want the government to reconsider its approval of RU-486, the abortion pill -- allegedly on medical grounds. (A leader in that fight is Dr. David Hager, reportedly the Bush administration’s choice to head the FDA's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee. Hager writes books urging a biblical approach to medicine and, according to two sources who spoke to Time magazine, refuses to prescribe contraception to unmarried women.)

Asked about the study that led to the HPV vaccine, the chief of the gynecologic oncology in the University of Pennsylvania Health System said, "If an effective vaccine comes out of this, one could envision it becoming part of routine childhood immunizations," while the head of the research team that developed herpes vaccine said, "If you did universal vaccination of 11- and 12-year-old women, you would eventually see an impact on the spread of herpes in both men and women." Sounds good -- but it won’t be that simple. If these vaccines are developed, at the very least there will pockets of outraged resistance to the idea that such vaccines should be given to young children (we will be told that the vaccines "encourage promiscuity"). More likely, given the near-inevitability of a second term for George Bush, resistance will be fierce and well organized -- and led from within the federal government.

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