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.

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