I haven't commented on the issue of HPV vaccination for girls before, partly because it's had a lot of attention from other feminist bloggers and I had little to add to their excellent examinations of the issue, but also because most of the more nonsensical debate about it appeared to be confined to the far-right media, which I generally ignore most of the time. But now that even the Guardian is repeating some of the more offensive right-wing objections to the HPV vaccination
, I feel moved to comment.
First, some quotes from the article.The government's expert advisory body on vaccination, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, is now studying proposals for an NHS-funded mass vaccination scheme which would eventually replace the current screening programme under which women are summoned for smear tests every three years to check for early signs of cancer. Senior Department of Health sources said the best age for immunisation was 12 or 13, before most children become sexually active. Ministers are said to be looking positively at the idea and planning is well advanced.
The move will be controversial with some parents, who fear the jabs will encourage unprotected sex or send confused messages about the right age for girls to lose their virginity.
[snip!][Professor Alex Markham] said the vaccine was 'most effective when given to women prior to any exposure to the virus', meaning before they started having sex.
However Hugh McKinney of the pressure group the National Family Campaign questioned the wisdom of immunising such young girls. 'Vaccination against cervical cancer makes full sense to bring down occurrences of this dreadful disease. The only question is at what age is this most appropriate, and many people will question whether 12 years is too young to be undertaking a vaccination programme that is important for when girls become sexually active,' he said.
'It could be seen as helping to promote or encourage sexual activity in girls before they are physically or mentally mature.'
As a woman - or rather, as a human being
- I find this kind of logic pretty hard to follow. Maybe Mr. McKinney's daughter isn't having sex at the age of 12 - good for her. But plenty of other people's daughters are, and wagging a finger at thh health professionals who aim to protect them from cervical cancer isn't going to change this. In fact, my concern is that 12 may be too late for some of the vulnerable girls who need this vaccine the most.
The most ridiculous aspect of McKinney's argument is that, taken to its logical conclusion, it would be better for a woman to die of cancer in her forties than to have engaged in sexual intercourse before the age of consent, which is a quite telling piece of misogyny that sums up a great deal of right-wing "pro-family" [sic
But another point, which I haven't seen widely remarked upon, is that I can't imagine the HPV vaccine having any effect whatsoever on the age girls start having sex, because HPV, as dangerous and unpleasant as it may be, is not by any means the worst thing you can catch from sex. Are these "pro-family" [sic
] types so confused about this vaccine that they think it protects women from all sexually transmitted diseases? If not, why are they making such a fuss?
My generation, who are now in their late twenties, grew up when HIV and AIDS were seen as a chilling, shameful death sentence, but one that only affected people in Africa or gay men. (This was wrong and ignorant, but it's the message we were given.) And yet when I was high school student in the early 1990s, my classmates and I were terrified of AIDS. We had it drummed into us pretty effectively at school (amid the predictable guilt-trips about how you shouldn't really be having sex at all) that you absolutely must use condoms, always, always, always, because pregnancy (which initially was what we feared the most, as one girl after another mysteriously disappeared from our classrooms and was later spotted pushing a pram in the street, looking downtrodden and miserable), was just about the nicest serious consequence of unprotected sex, considering AIDS was out there.
Now that HIV and AIDS are more effectively treated but far more widespread, I can hardly see that the situation can have changed. I know it's a somewhat different situation in America, where right-wing pressure has substantially altered the politics of condom promotion and distribution, but even in liberal Britain, where contraception may be obtained for free from the NHS, I don't think immunity to HPV will result in teenaged girls deciding to have sex earlier and/or without protection when the threat of HIV and AIDS is still out there. In any case, the reasons a teenager starts having sex are more complicated than that. And anyhow, who needs the NHS to "promote or encourage sexual activity in girls before they are physically or mentally mature" when there are pole dancing kits for children, Playboy-themed school stationery, television and the internet out there... and that's before we even get into the existence of hormones, other teenagers, peer pressure and low self-esteem!
As a feminist, I hope probably as much as most conservatives do that teenaged girls will love themselves enough to start having sex only when they truly, profoundly want to, with partners who love and respect them. But that's about where our similarities end. It's not our job, or the NHS's job, to invent morality for teenaged girls, or make their decisions for them. We cannot stop girls having sex, regardless of the railing of conservatives, and we cannot protect girls from the emotional pain that may result from their decisions, but if there's any way we can protect their health, I would consider it immensely immoral even to enter into this offensively ignorant debate with conservatives. "Pro-family" [sic
] types are big on talking about the consequences of sex, which leads me to assume that they'd rather these consequences were as horrible as possible than actually to save any lives, which is ironic given that these same people are always calling themselves "pro-life" [sic
] too. The inhumanity of people that would punish a mature woman with cervical cancer because of sexual activity in her childhood is astounding. How "pro-life" and "pro-family" is that?