05 January 2012

Dear religious right, cancer is a health issue, not a moral one

Turns out that Vogue magazine isn’t just about semi-glossed pages of beautiful (if often overpriced) clothes on beautiful (if often emaciated) women. There’s also intelligent, provocative writing to be found tucked between all those perfume ads and sparkly bling. The December 2011 issue has a feature on the controversial HPV vaccine (‘Calling the Shots’); writer Ayelet Waldman tells her story about being infected with HPV, and condemns the moralism of American politicians like Michele Bachmann who oppose the HPV vaccine.

Waldman was infected with the human papillomavirus, which can cause various cancers, despite being in a long-term monogamous relationship, putting paid to the conservative lie that HPV is the (deserved) price for promiscuity. Michele Bachmann displayed this odious self-righteousness in her opposition to the HPV vaccine, going so far as to criticising Texas governor and fellow God-botherer Rick Perry for issuing an executive order mandating HPV vaccination for girls in sixth grade. Here’s Waldman on the really spiteful motivation behind Bachmann’s anti-vaccine position (emphasis mine):

Perry’s strategic mistake was in treating a vaccine that protects children against a potentially fatal disease as a health issue. The state of Texas mandates vaccinations for polio, for chicken pox, for nine different illnesses, only a few of which are as potentially deadly as the cervical, anal, and oral cancers caused by HPV, but Bachmann took no issue with those. She attacked HPV because unlike, say, rubella and mumps, it’s sexually communicable. For people like Bachmann, HPV isn’t a disease; it’s a punishment, a penalty for promiscuity, and to require a young girl to get the vaccine is to expect, even to condone, her sin.

Religious zealots like Bachmann are obsessed with sexual propriety. It’s like they’re wearing special glasses that lets them only see the religio-moral spectrum when they look at any issue of public concern. To them, the HPV vaccine issue isn’t about stopping girls from getting cancer; it’s about encouraging girls to fuck a lot. Prominent skeptic and feminist Rebecca Watson took on Bachmann during last year’s Skepticon, wittily exposing Bachmann’s logic fail:

Michele Bachmann is also against fire extinguishers, because they’ll just encourage everybody to set shit on fire.

Waldman received some negative pushback from her Twitter followers when she tweeted about her HPV infection in what many thought to be overly graphic detail. To her critics, Waldman responds:

The concept of [Too Much Information] is composed of a combination of prudishness, squeamishness, and censoriousness. It’s the last part that bothers me the most. You’re a prude? Fine. You’re uncomfortable with your body? That’s your problem. But when you try to shame others out of speaking out or taking action, then you’re engaging in a hip, digital form of the worst kind of demagoguery. Then you’re Michele Bachmann. The opposing principle of TMI is embodied by the phrase “Silence = Death”. Remember back in the height of the AIDS crisis, when HIV was considered a disease of promiscuous gay men and drug addicts, something decent people neither suffered from nor talked about? It took a pink triangle and a slogan to remind us of the dangers of conflating public health and morality. It’s time to do the same for HPV.

Hear, hear.


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