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Do People Really Oppose the Cervical Cancer Vaccine?

Have you been following the controversy over HPV vaccination? I've been following it intently for a couple of reasons. I once worked on a CD-ROM intended to educate young women about cervical cancer. (This was about 10 years ago, when people actually worked on CD-ROMs.) I remember being shocked that a virus (HPV) caused cancer. At that time, there was not much talk of a vaccine, so it has been astonishing to see a vaccine created, tested, and deployed in such a short period of time .

The other reason I'm interested in the controversy is that public-health issues often involve epic battles of ideas. The Marlboro Man versus the American Lung Association's "black lung" campaign. The cocaine sex-appeal of the Miami Vice era versus the sizzling eggs of "This is your brain on drugs."

Now, I wouldn't have expected a showdown on the cancer vaccine. You'd think that if there's one thing a society could unanimously get behind, it'd be a cancer vaccine. But not so fast. The NYT piece cites "conservative Christian groups who oppose mandatory H.P.V. vaccination on moral grounds." Apparently, since HPV is a sexually-transmitted virus, allowing your daughter to receive the vaccine would implicitly condone or encourage sexual activity that you disapprove of.

The line from the article disturbed me for two reasons. I bristled at the use of the word "moral," as though the opposition groups had a claim on the term that the other side lacked. Seems to me that, to the extent this is really a debate, the fight is entirely about morals, on all sides. In fact, it seems to be about the relative value of Abstinence versus Life. So whether you support or oppose the vaccine, it's on moral grounds. And I'd say that preventing young women from dying early is a decent moral position to adopt.

I was also disturbed to see the opposition to the vaccine labeled as a "Christian" position. Because I don't think I've ever known Christian parents who I could envision denying their daughter the cancer vaccine. I went searching for more info on the cancer vaccine opponents.

Something stuck out as I searched. One man kept popping up, again and again, as the "source" for the opposition. His name was Dr. Hal Wallis, described as a former obstetrician-gynecologist from Waxahachie and now part of the conservative Physician's Consortium. A couple of sites had links to the "Physician's Consortium" that did not work. I began to wonder whether the opposition was quite as formidable as it was made out.

Then, I came across a Dallas Morning News article that said Dr. Wallis, after meeting with representatives from Merck, "now believes that the vaccine should be required for school registration." The arch-villain of the cancer vaccine is... a supporter?

The organization Focus on the Family, which is a formidable political player, does oppose mandatory HPV vaccinations as a requirement for entry in schools. Its reasons boil down to the notion that parents should be in charge of anything related to the sexual health of their children. But FoF is very careful NOT to say that it thinks parents should not vaccinate their children. FoF quibbles a bit with the vaccine's effectiveness (it doesn't work for all kinds of HPV!), etc., but quite noticeably does not state that giving one's daughter the vaccine is immoral. No doubt the parents who are a part of FoF were vocal in telling the organization: Look, my daughter's life comes before her abstinence. So be careful what stand you take on this one.

Ultimately, I wonder whether there IS any formidable "moral" opposition to the vaccine. Could it be that the idea of moral opposition to a cancer vaccine is so insanely unexpected, so deliciously wrongheaded, that even the hint of it is enough to make it stick? Because we know that the quality of unexpectedness makes ideas stick. If a legislator started vocally advocating the repeal of Mother's Day, we'd all know about it within a week. In fact, people might actually feel compelled to make the case FOR Mother's Day, as though there were a legitimate debate taking place. Similarly, could it be that a tiny group of people have had an outsized impact on this debate because of the surprisingness of the position?

My hope is that the idea of widespread moral opposition to the vaccine is a kind of public-health urban legend. I don't know that to be true, and I certainly haven't done enough research to prove it. But with any luck, the moral opposition meme won't spread as quickly and effectively as an urban legend. Because we should all be celebrating the advent of the cervical cancer vaccine and the lives it will save.

— Dan Heath

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas...
    Used Hardcover $10.50

Chip and Dan Heath is the author of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

8 Responses to "Do People Really Oppose the Cervical Cancer Vaccine?"

    Ryan Holiday February 19th, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    Dr. Drew (of Loveline) is doing some amazing work publicizing this vaccine. I met him twice in the last year and it's all he's talking about. I remember one time, he started getting into it and just ended up yelling "goddamn" out of pure frustration at the idiocy of the opposition to this thing.

    Think about it, 20,000 women a year die from cervical cancer related to HPV. 40,000 Americans die of AIDS each year. Can you imagine anyone opposing an AIDS vaccine? No 12 year olds are having sex, that's just when the vaccine is at it's maximum efficacy.

    Kurt February 19th, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    There is a small, though noisy, segment of the population which reacts to words like "cervix", "scrotum" or "a boy named Sue" with embarassment then outrage. It's a function of ignorance, not morality.

    N.Kojak February 20th, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    HPV is relativly harmless and is carried by a large number of the population, it can cause cervical cancer if the symptoms ie. warts go undetected for a long period of time. Women who get regular pap smears should have nothing to worry about. Many people will go their whole lives without showing symptoms.

    Cervical cancer is being used to make the idea of the vaccine stick, and it is very powerful. The idea that it should be mandatory for schools is a bit of an over reaction, which will probably get it more press than it deserves, and have many people blindly supporting it. If you don't support it, it appears to be tantamount to giving people cancer. The argument seems so logical, that is to say, the logic set down in the advertising. It won't be long until people are stigmatised for not having been vaccinated, and if this is connected with schooling ...

    Merck must be loving it.

    David February 21st, 2007 at 10:02 am

    I think your article does a good job of identifying the real issues at play here. The main issue for the opposition (at least in Texas) is the mandatory part and parent's responsibility/rights versus school/government control.
    There's been a lot of opposition to the mandatory vaccines here in Texas since the governor proposed it. I know of no one that opposes the vaccines because they're for cancer (obviously). While conservative Christians (like myself) are concerned about the approaches of sex education in our culture and schools in general, I have not seen that as the basis for opposing the vaccine. HPV is an epidemic that has gone unaddressed far too long. So I think the vacinnations are a good program, but I'd like see more work on the prevention side of things in addition to cure.

    Alexis February 21st, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    HPV is "relatively harmless"? Having known several women who contracted it, became ill, and now have continuing immune deficiency problems, I disagree with N.Kojak's statement. There are many, many different types of HPV that do NOT cause warts, and condoms do not always protect against it, especially for couples in long term relationships, since men are unlikely to be aware that they are carriers until the women in their lives have an irregular pap test. Wikipedia has some great information about HPV. Do yourself a favor and get informed.

    Dave February 21st, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    I live in Texas and the objection is really about forcing girls to get an injection that is questionable. Thanks to mercury levels (present in shots such as this!) autism rates have skyrocketed. Once it was one in 10,000, now its one in ever 700 or so.

    And where does it end? What is next? Citizens have control over their bodies, the state can't leverage public education as a means to force girls into this. Its absolutely not right. If you want to save and empower families, make this optional and then educate them on the benefits and risks. Drug companies can still be incredibly profitable under such a system.

    Jen February 22nd, 2007 at 11:22 am

    It's all about Merck making a ton of money off of this vaccine.

    Peter Donovan February 25th, 2007 at 11:21 am

    The Christian stuff is a red herring. It's about authority and power (Merck and the State of Texas in this case), and the reaction to it.

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