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