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Why the Religious Right Fights Cancer Prevention

Conservative groups have caused an uproar by opposing a vaccine for the second-deadliest cancer for women.
 
 
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The Food and Drug Administration advisory panel approved a vaccine for the human papilloma virus (HPV) last week. The vaccine appears to be 100 percent effective at protecting against the most prevalent viruses that cause cervical cancer. While public health professionals view the vaccine as miraculous, many conservative organizations oppose it on the grounds that it might encourage promiscuity among adolescent girls. Now that the FDA has approved the vaccine, conservatives are already working feverishly to limit or even prevent its use.

The pharmaceutical giant Merck produced the vaccine, known as Gardasil, which will be nothing short of a lifesaver for countless women. Cervical cancer is the second most prevalent cancer killer among women in America, striking nearly 14,000 each year. Of those, nearly 4,000 die. Poor women and women of color will benefit the most from the vaccine, as Latino and black women suffer the highest rates of cervical cancer. Lower-income women typically lack the funds and health insurance necessary to have regular screenings for HPV.

Despite the benefits of the vaccine, conservative organizations began to rally against it last year. One of the most vocal opponents was the Family Research Council. The council, according to its mission statement, "promotes the Judeo-Christian worldview as the basis for a just, free, and stable society." Last October the council's president, Tony Perkins, spoke against the vaccine. "Our concern," he said, "is that this vaccine will be marketed to a segment of the population that should be getting a message about abstinence. It sends the wrong message." He went on to say that he would not vaccinate his 13-year-old daughter.

Yet another organization that promotes abstinence is the Physicians Consortium. The head of the consortium, Dr. Hal Wallis, is also critical of the vaccine. In his opinion, "If you don't want to suffer these diseases, you need to abstain, and when you find a partner, stick with that partner." The founder of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse also opposes the vaccine. This organization was formed "to promote the appreciation for and practice of sexual abstinence (purity) until marriage." Leslee Unruh, the organization's founder, stated firmly, "I personally object to vaccinating children against a disease that is 100 percent preventable with proper sexual behavior."

Now that FDA approval is official, conservative organizations are strategizing to blunt acceptance of the vaccine. Much of this effort is directed toward the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). This committee is a part of the Centers for Disease Control, and is responsible for establishing the classification of vaccines that the government recommends. This recommendation prompts states to require a particular vaccination, typically guarantees that insurance companies will cover it and determines the level of public funding.

In 2003 President Bush's secretary of health and human services appointed a medical doctor, Reginald Finger, to the ACIP. Until last fall, Dr. Finger was also the medical affairs analyst for Focus on the Family, the nation's largest and most powerful evangelical Christian organization. In an effort to gain the support of this group, Merck has been forced to aggressively lobby Focus. Merck has admitted holding numerous meetings with Dr. Finger at Focus headquarters. It's troubling that a vaccine manufacturer has to be concerned with securing the backing of a conservative Christian organization. And Merck is likely to have an uphill battle.

Although children are required to have various vaccinations before attending public schools, conservatives are against the ACIP recommending such a practice for the HPV vaccine. The Christian Medical & Dental Associations is an organization that "exists to glorify God by advancing Biblical principles in bioethics and health to the Church and society." The group's executive director, Dr. Gene Rudd, has stated, "While accepting HPV vaccine is morally acceptable, it should not be mandatory."

And the Family Research Council has gone even further. While testifying before an ACIP conference, the council's spokesman said: "Because parents have an inherent right to be the primary educator and decision maker regarding their children's health, we would oppose any measures to legally require vaccination. There is no justification for any vaccination mandate as a condition of public school attendance." And Focus on the Family issued a formal statement declaring that it "supports widespread (universal) availability of HPV vaccines but opposes mandatory HPV vaccinations for entry to public school."

But in most instances, parents can't pick and choose what vaccinations they want their children to receive in order to attend public schools. Children are required to be vaccinated against measles, mumps, chicken pox and various other diseases. Public health experts recommend that the HPV vaccine be administered to children at about ages 11 or 12, before sexual activity commences. And there's no scientifically defensible reason that it shouldn't be universally administered.

Of course, there's the rub: The objection to the HPV vaccine isn't based on science; rather, it comes from a biblically based squeamishness about premarital sex.

Religious values, however, shouldn't affect FDA approval or recommendation by the ACIP. From a public health perspective, we can't continue to allow conservatives to depict science as a cultural bogeyman.

Gene Gerard has taught history, religion and ethics for 14 years and is a contributing author of the forthcoming book "Americans at War" (Greenwood Press).