June 2006


It has long been a legitimate source of feminist outrage in the United States that social conservatives oppose moves to make the HPV vaccine – which protects against cervical cancer – mandatory, and thus a part of the routine vaccinations given to pre-pubescent girls.

The reason is that the vaccine works by boosting immunity to a cancer-causing virus which is sexually transmitted. (Apparently, it is the same virus that causes genital warts.) Moreover, the vaccine apparently works best if given to girls before they become sexually active, and therefore it is suggested that it should be administered to pre-teens – say, in the range 10-12 years.

This has the social conservatives up in arms. That girls might become sexually active at such a young age is horrible enough, they say, but this should not be “encouraged” by the state giving them a free pass. Pre-pubescent girls might start to think: Hey, I’m all vaccinated up and protected. It’s now perfectly safe for me go out and have sex as much as I want. The doctor said it’s OK. Let’s party!

If you don’t believe that people think this, then just take the comments cited in this May 2006 ABC article as an example:

But beyond the medicine, there are questions about who should get the vaccine and when… conservative family groups say parents should have a choice.”This is a disease that’s sexually transmitted,” said Linda Klepacki, spokeswoman for Focus on the Family. “Because of that, this is a very personal subject and we feel parents should make that decision for their children.”

Other opponents go further. Hal Wallace, head of the Physicians Consortium, says the vaccine would send kids a message that, “you just take this shot and you can be as sexually promiscuous as you want.”

Last year, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found 11 percent of physicians worried that the vaccine might encourage more risky sexual behavior…

Is this not completely insane? Don’t give kids protection against cancer in case it makes them feel safe to have sex?

While we’re at it, let’s not make condoms available – or any contraception at all, that would be better, certainly not emergency contraception. And let’s not bother with sex education either, at least we’ll pretend to do sex ed and really we’ll just tell’em all to say No. Otherwise they might get all loose-moralled and start having sex outside marriage and then we’d really be in trouble.

Oh wait, the social conservatives in the USA already support that notion. They already enforce it wherever they can. Thank God I don’t live there.

As Angry Black Bitch so eloquently puts it in a post earlier this month: “We are at war with a movement prepared to see us die rather than live outside of their strict moral code.”

Since when did fear of disease really stop people from having sex anyway? Fear of disease, when coupled with strong safe-sex campaigns can make people more aware of the need to use protection (the use-condoms-or-get-AIDS ads of my youth worked on me, anyway). But it doesn’t make people abstain. It just doesn’t work. Just look at the AIDS epidemic throughout Africa – where the Catholic church’s refusal to support safe sex campaigns, and insistence on abstinence-only preaching, has had devestating consequences.

For various reasons, despite my interest in both feminist issues and vaccination policy* I hadn’t got around to blogging about this topic before.

(* See this post for a round-up of my other posts on the subject of vaccinations – and maybe I will add this to the sidebar too – watch this space)

Mainly, this is because it’s definitely more of an Across The Pond issue, where the sexual morality police are much stronger and more commonplace than is the case here in the UK. But also, I was kind of conflicted after my own research into vaccinations about what I really thought about yet another one being pushed on children universally. I don’t agree that vaccines should be mandatory, because I believe in informed, indivdual choice, so I’ve been uncomfortable about the whole question.

However, said Angry Black Bitch post – which I came across today – has stung me into action.

In the UK it is very easy to speak of informed patient choice and to chatter about how we should none of us be forced into having any vaccinations we do not want. It is very easy to criticise people who insist that vaccinations should be universal and compulsory as they are in other countries such as the USA. The only area of debate around mandatory-or-not is in the sphere of public health in the case of infectious diseases. Short of evidence to support the herd immunity theory, which does not appear to be forthcoming, there is little that a mandatory-vaccine supporter can do or say to plead their case.

In the USA, it’s not quite so simple.

If a vaccine is mandatory, everybody gets it. Even poor people, who get it free on Medicaid. They don’t get any choice about it, but they do get it.

If a vaccine is licenced but not mandatory, not everybody gets it. Those who can afford it and want it will get it. Those who could afford it but have other things to spend their money on, will understandably allow financial considerations to affect their judgement about whether or not to get it: many will reason that if it was that important, the state would mandate it and therefore that it is no big deal. And those who cannot afford it just won’t get it. No choice.

So a decision whether to mandate the vaccine is only a decision about choice when it comes to rich people. For the less well-off, it is a decision about what choice to make for them. Either way, poorer people get no choice. And that stinks.

This comment by Farmer Tracy sums it up neatly:

“It is totally outrageous and incredibly racist that being on Medicaid means that you can’t make your own health care choices, and that you are either denied a potentially life saving vaccine or forced to get one against your will. HPV can cause cancer, and childhood vaccinations may cause autism. But it scares the HELL out of me that people can’t make those choices themselves. We’re talking about the government and corporations duking it out over what can happen to OUR bodies, and saying, “Poor people of America, we’ll sorta help you out, but only if you listen to us because we know what’s best.” I am not advocating libertarianism — nobody should have to pay for health care in my radical opinion. But to me the war isn’t about protecting poor folks’ right to not get cancer, it’s about protecting their ability to decide what’s best for themselves.”

Hear, hear.

And what stinks more is that by pretending that the argument is about whether abstinence-only parents should have the choice to avoid sex-mania-inducing vaccines, these conservatives are hiding the fact that it is really about whether poor children should be denied access to potentially life-saving vaccines. Now that really stinks.

In the last couple of days I have posted once, twice about the use of language in BBC reporting of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I also linked to a BBC newseditorsblog that happened to be dealing with exactly the same questions that were troubling me.

Fear not – this is my last post on this theme for now, cos I know it’s getting boring. However, the comments section of that BBC blog post has grown like mad since I looked yesterday, and if this subject interests you at all then it’s well worth a read: all points of view seem to be represented and a fair number of the comments were genuinely intelligent.

Also worth a read (tipped off to this by some of the commenters, especially number 43) are some previous reviews of BBC coverage of the conflict, carried out specifically to identify whether and to what extent the apparently unending accusations of bias are true.

A 2004 (external) report found that there was some pro-Israel bias, albeit certainly an unconscious bias. Israelis and pro-Israeli points of view were given significantly more coverage; the context was rarely well-explained (e.g. that Israel has been occupying Palestinian territory for decades) so that the impression that “the Palestinians started it” was often given even where this was inappropriate; there was more coverage when Israelis were killed than when Palestinians were killed; and the use of language displayed bias, such as where in similar contexts Palestinians would be called terrorists while Israelis would be calledat worst extremists or vigilantes.

A 2006 (independent, but commissioned by the BBC) report found that things had improved a lot. (Click here for the report itself, PDF.) However, there was still some over-representation of the Israeli point of view and still some under-representation of Palestinian suffering, with continued under-reporting of casualties as well as a lack of attention to the daily reality of life under occupation. The report recommended some action points, but was on the whole rather positive about the impartiality, fairness and balance of BBC reporting.

I have learned stuff, and also feel slightly gratified to find that my initial disinterested impression of a certain limited, but nevertheless real, element of pro-Israel bias was probably more or less right.

OK that’s it, you’ll be relieved to know – end of subject!

(For now, anyway… I’m feeling quite a bit better now, so I’ve finally got out of bed, switched off the radio and will have some other stuff to talk about before long.)

One of the things about being poorly is that you spend a lot of time lying in bed trying to pass the hours until you feel a bit better. Mainly I have been passing that time intermittently snoozing, entertaining Baby M as best I can, and listening to the usually excellent BBC World Service.

This will explain why so many of my posts at present are observations on news stories. It’s because these are the most interesting things to have penetrated my passive consciousness in the last few days.

Anywhoo… There were a couple of good ones today.

Firstly, today saw the first Kuwaiti elections in which women were allowed to participate as full voting citizens. Twenty-eight women stood as candidates, and women voters queued up to exercise their newly won rights. Hooray for Kuwaiti feminists!

Secondly, I listened to an extended piece on the South Dakota abortion ban. Catching up with the latest news on this, I found that people in South Dakota had managed to force a referendum of the issue. Under state law, they can do this if they collect as many as 16,728 signatures calling for a referendum within a 90 day period. In fact, over 38,000 signatures were collected and the ban has been deferred until after a referendum, to be held in November. Hooray SD feminists!

Two moments in this report are really worth repeating.

The first was when the state legislator responsible for sponsoring the bill – sorry, I’ve forgotten his name – described the way in which he and his colleagues have sought to undermine the landmark case of Roe v Wade (in which the US Supreme Court decided that the constitution required that women have the right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy, free from state interference).

He said that for many years they have been “picking away” at it, with restrictions and regulations and various measures designed to limit access to abortion services. He then said:

“When you have been picking away at something, there comes a point when you have to say: this is a cripple, it’s time to terminate.”

Nice metaphor, I thought, in the circumstances. Tasteful use of the word “cripple”, too. Maybe when he next meets a woman forced to bear a severely disabled child against her will, he’ll dust it off and use it again.

The other moment was a vox pop comment from a member of the public asked for an opinion. A supporter of this bill, he was asked whether he didn’t think it was a bit strict, given the absence of any real exceptions from this near-absolute ban. He replied:

“I don’t really understand what flexibility you are supposed to have around the word No.”

Again, nice choice of words. Maybe when he next meets a woman forced to bear the child of a man who raped her, they can have a cosy little chat about the meaning of that pesky little word No.

*************************

Finally, I get mail!

After yesterday’s post about the use of language in reporting events in Gaza this week, I was about to write a follow-up post.

I was going to discuss the use of words like abducted, kidnapped and captured – mostly used to describe the Israeli soldier being held by Palestinian militants – and words like detained and arrested – mostly used to describe the Palestinian politicians being held by Israel. I was going to say that words used to describe Israel’s actions suggest legitimacy and lawfulness, while those used to describe the actions of Palestinian militants (or should that be terrorists?) suggest the opposite. Given that both actions appear to be, shall we say, extra-legal, I was going to question again how the BBC has used language to characterise the situation in a way that seems inappropriate for an organisation that strives for balanced objectivity.

Anyway, I happened to come across this entry in the BBC newseditorsblog, covering precisely the same topic from their own point of view, and I thought that actually I would just link to it. Even if the BBC don’t necessarily get the language right, at least it is clear that their editors understand the issue.

(I thought it particularly interesting that most commenters, so far, accuse the BBC of being biased against Israel, whereas my impression has always been – where I notice bias, that is – that it is in favour of Israel. Confusing, innit?)

I try to stay out of any discussion about stuff that happens in the Gulf region. It’s just way too complicated and scary, there’s too much that I don’t understand. But sometimes I do get riled up enough about some aspect of the news from that part of the world to comment – albeit trepidatiously, given my general ignorance about the whole situation.

Today’s “incursion” by Israel into the Gaza Strip is one of those occasions.

I just don’t see how getting together a bunch of tanks and soldiers and rolling over into somebody else’s territory can reasonably be described as an incursion. It’s not an incursion. It’s an invasion.

I know that technically they mean more or less the same thing.

invasion n. 1. The act of invading, especially the entrance of an armed force into a territory to conquer. 2. A large-scale onset of something injurious or harmful, such as a disease. 3. An intrusion or encroachment.incursion n. 1. An aggressive entrance into foreign territory; a raid or invasion. 2. The act of entering another’s territory or domain. 3. The act of entering or running into.

But calling it an incursion does make it sounds like one more of those things that happen, nothing too serious, something like an excursion perhaps. Call it an invasion and we all know what it means.

In the approximately 10,000 times that I have heard these events discussed on the news while I have lain sick in my bed today, I have heard the word “incursion” a gazillion times, but not once have I heard the word “invasion”. It’s as though the BBC are deliberately trying to play it down.

Gah.

(And then the White House are telling us that they support what Israel is doing on the ground that they have a right to “defend” themselves. I have heard it said that attack is the best form of defence, and I guess that is after all the basis of the war on terror. But to invade a whole country to rescue a single abducted soldier seems to me to be stretching the concept of self-defence a bit too far. Even America wouldn’t do that, I hope.)

It’s stuff like this that makes me really cross. We are supposed to have a balanced media, yet so often (this is just one example) it comes across to me as indefensibly biased in Israel’s favour.

The abovementioned well-timed service interruption, preventing many from watching the England game last night, also prevented me from getting anywhere near the internet. Go Telewest!

And I had such a lot to say, as well.

For one thing, there was the uplifting feeling I had when listening to an interview with Charlie Wilson. Wilson is the subject of a forthcoming based-on-real-life film starring Tom Hanks, and I for one will not be watching it. This is a man who channelled an estimated $10bn of US government money into supporting a secret war against the USSR in Afghanistan. You’d think he might be a little bit sheepish, but he isn’t. He is full to bursting with self-congratulation over the whole thing, openly boasting about how he called in favours and misdirected funds to support his own pet, unsanctioned project. He is proud of what he did.

Asked about his penchant for globetrotting with beauty queens and the like, he says – Well, I had to travel a lot, “and I tried not to do it with ugly women.” Asked about his alcoholism and alcohol-related health problems, he says – Oh, I don’t think I drank any more than Winston (Churchill). Asked about his pulling strings to get the two Department of Defense aircraft withdrawn from the US embassy in Pakistan because the attache refused to break government rules and allow him to take his then-current girlfriend on board for a jolly, he says – It may not have been the best thing, but I’m sure anyone else would have reacted in the same way.

What a guy.

And I had a whole lot to say about China.

For example, did you know that in China, one woman kills herself every four minutes?

Xu Rong [head of the Suicide Prevention Project at the Beijing Cultural Development Centre for Rural Women] estimates that 70-80% of suicides are the direct result of conflicts between husbands and wives.Xie Lihua, editor of China’s foremost women’s magazine, agrees that traditional values are a problem. “If a woman goes to live with her husband’s family and they treat her well, or if she’s found someone who loves and respects her, she’ll be all right. If not, things will be very difficult for her. This is because there’s a saying among men that goes: ‘marrying a woman is like buying a horse: I can ride you and beat you whenever I like’.”

The story here is hopeful though. Women are setting up support networks in villages. Young women are starting to leave their villages to find work in cities and towns and to understand their own self-worth, and the possibilities before them. Go Chinese feminists!

On the other hand, did you know that women who break the one-child policy by getting pregnant for a second or third time risk forced abortions and/or sterilisations?

Zhu Hongyun… was forced to have an abortion in May 2005 because she already had a son. After she realised she was pregnant, she knew the authorities would try to prevent her from giving birth so she fled from her village and went into hiding in Linyi city. She says family planning officials kept her three sisters-in-law hostage until she returned and agreed to let them terminate the foetus. It was seven months old. Zhu is still trying to recover from the trauma of seeing her dead son dumped into a black plastic bag.

The authorities say that they are taking action to prevent this. Did you know that a man named Chen Guangcheng (an amazing human rights activist) is currently being persecuted for exposing the scandal of illegal forced abortions?

Last September, he was abducted off the streets of Beijing by family planning officials and police from Shandong…Knowing their chances of promotion are linked to family planning targets, officials turned to ruthless measures to enforce regulations.

It’s pretty scary stuff.

And now, because I spent tonight blogging about what I wanted to blog about last night, I haven’t blogged about what I wanted to blog about tonight. Rats. I will catch up with myself eventually though, never you fear.

Today is apparently the happiest day of the year.

Scientifially proven and everything. Something about it being midsummer, the expectation of long months of good weather to look forward to, the summer holiday season getting closer, the grey old rain finally packing up for a bit. All that stuff, I guess. A day for being cheerful and hopeful and carefree.

I was happy today. Just walking into town, thinking about nothing in particular, I realised that I’m really, really happy. My life is going better than it has done for a long time, and – even with the car problems, maybe partly because of them – it has been a great week.

For example, yesterday, chatting to Baby M on the way home from nursery, we were doing what-animals-make-what-noises. We had just done Cat, as she’d seen one, and took great delight in copying my Meow impressions, and then Cow, which was her idea – she signed for it. Then I asked her “Do you know what sound a pig makes?” and straight away she started signing Pig and snorting in a very piggy way. Aint she the best?

And the whole solstice experience was just fantastic. I didn’t really know quite what to expect of it, and I’m still not sure how sitting in a field all night, getting rained on, in a great big crowd of people could possibly be any fun. But it was amazing. The stones, the drumming, the singing, the colour and vibrancy of the people, the sunrise, the excitement, the cameraderie… it was an atmosphere the like of which I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. I loved it!

I digress.

I was about to say that this time last year was also a big step up for me in happiness terms. I couldn’t tell you the exact date, but it was pretty near – definitely mid to late June – when I really started to pull myself out of the Slough of Despond.

Maybe there is something in this theory after all?

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