Nasty smear campaigns

By Zoe Williams (THE GUARDIAN, 06/09/2006):

As the vaccine for cervical cancer becomes available in the UK for the first time, conservative opinion mobilises – rather sluggishly, I think – against the advance. The problem is, like so many of these pesky vaccines, the jab only works on women who have not already contracted the human papilloma virus (HPV). There is no point in administering it to girls who are already sexually active, and since the drug is safe from the age of nine, it would take some pretty bent priorities to dispute that sooner was better than later.

But if there’s one thing a debate about women’s health will always have in spades, it’s bent priorities. The Catholic church, along with «family campaigners», are against the vaccine, claiming that it encourages underage sex. Yes, giving an injection to a 10-year-old does admit the possibility that she will one day have sex. The notion that it will accelerate a girl’s sexual activity is predicated on a nation of pre-teens whose only impediment to sexual activity is their full and mature understanding of the consequences. Yeah, right.

I heard a family campaigner arguing in more nebulous terms that to have an HPV jab at 10 destroyed one’s innocence. It’s true that someone, inevitably, will have to introduce the idea of sex to a load of virgins. Likewise, a curious two-year-old might ask you what the MMR jab is for, and thus be introduced to a world of misery and disease that you’d hitherto managed to mask completely behind some pictures of badgers.

The comparison is instructive – in all the MMR controversy, with that spectacular range of belief and interpretation, not one person ever came out and said: «I don’t agree with it because it destroys innocence.» They wouldn’t have been laughed at, they would have been castigated for dangerous unhelpfulness. Measles, incidentally, has killed one person in the UK since 1992. Cervical cancer killed 1,093 women in 2005. There are arguments used in women’s health that, if applied generally, would baffle us; we would be unable to comprehend their superstition and their idiocy. And we all know this, but we never fight it, we just snigger and look away, as if caught swearing in front of a Christian aunt, but not to worry, she’ll be gone in a minute.

In one way, that’s true, this lobby is totally impotent, there is no voice in NHS policy-making for the deranged who would rather see women die than imagine them having sex without consequences. Yet it’s worth wondering why we don’t take a more trenchant stand against these people. I believe it’s because we look at our healthcare misogynists, and then we look at the US’s, and we think we got off so lightly that it would be almost indecent to make a fuss. Over there, the anti-vaccine voice is louder and crazier. Many rightist campaigners take Focus on Families’ line: «We can prevent HPV by the best public health method and that’s not having sex before marriage» – as if marriage is some kind of unbreachable supercondom (research shows this is not the case).

Even centrist voices take the line that the «relatively uninvasive pap smear» will do the job without the controversy. (First: not true; second: relative to what, a triple heart bypass?) The likelihood is that state health authorities in conservative areas will hide behind budgetary constraints when it comes to vaccinating. Only rich kids will get it, in other words. Poor kids can think themselves lucky that they don’t have polio.

Such thinking (think we’re bad? Look over there!) shoots through countless debates, from HIV funding in Africa to time-limit revisions on abortions. It’s not really on – we should not be comparing ourselves to the worst of the developed world. We should be comparing ourselves to the best.