A vaccine against cervical cancer, with potential to save the lives of 3,700 women in the United States and 250,000 worldwide each year, could become available as early as next year. It worries conservative Christian groups, however, who fear it might send an unintended message to young girls that it is safe to have premarital sex.

One of two drugs being developed by competing pharmaceutical companies was shown in early testing to be nearly 100 percent effective in preventing human papiloma virus (HPV), which is linked to nearly all cases of cervical cancer.

Health officials say to be most effective in preventing the disease, girls should be vaccinated before they become sexually active. Some want the shot added to the list of vaccinations that young people are required to have before entering high school.

The rub for groups that promote sexual abstinence until marriage is that HPV is sexually transmitted. Some see danger that such widespread use of the vaccine, which also prevents genital warts, could undermine their message that the only way to have “safe” sex is to wait until marriage.

“We’re going to be sending a message to a lot of kids, I think, that you just take this shot and you can be as sexually promiscuous as you want and it’s not going to be a problem, and that’s just not true,” Dr. Hal Wallace, who heads the Physicians Consortium, said in a Focus on the Family news release.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State reported this summer that a spokeswoman for the Family Research Council said young women should have to deal with the consequences of the rapidly spreading sexually transmitted disease rather then rely on a new vaccine.

“Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV,” the FRC’s Bridget Maher reportedly told New Scientist. “Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex.”

HPV is extremely common among sexually active young women, but most cases clear up by themselves. Sometimes infection lingers, however, and can cause cervical cancer decades later.

Abstinence-only groups have long used the specter of catching HPV as one tactic to scare young people away from having sex.

“Studies have found that up to 15 percent of sexually active teenage women are infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV), an incurable virus that is present in nearly all cervical cancers,” the Family Research Council warned on its Web site.

“Either have sex before marriage and get an STD and HIV, HPV or an unplanned pregnancy, or you save it until marriage and you live happily ever after,” Janet Parshall, at the time a staff member of the Family Research Council, said in 1999.

That year Republican congressman Tom Coburn (a medical doctor and now an Oklahoma senator) tried to get a warning label placed on condoms that they do not prevent HPV, because it is spread skin-to-skin instead of by exchange of bodily fluids. Critics said labeling one disease that condoms don’t protect, without adding information about others that they do, would discourage people who have sex from using condoms.

Concerned Women for America in February reported that the Centers for Disease Control “finally” acknowledged that certain types of HPV cause cervical cancer, “after years of avoiding the subject.”

“The only understandable reason was that CDC was beholden to liberal dogma and outside interests that did not want women to know that having promiscuous sex could lead to cancer,” CWA concluded.

Acknowledging that even women who remain virgins until marriage can catch HPV if their husbands are not, however, some conservative Christian groups initially critical of the vaccine now appear to be warming to the idea.

The Family Research Council, which previously feared an HPV vaccine might lead preteens to have sex, now says it will “monitor the development of these vaccines, the FDA drug approval process, the development of recommendations for their use and the marketing of these vaccines.”

“While we welcome medical advances such as an HPV vaccine, it remains clear that practicing abstinence until marriage and fidelity within marriage is the single best way of preventing the full range of sexually transmitted diseases,” the group said in a statement quoted by the Washington Post.

Roberta Combs of the Christian Coalition of America said use of a vaccine that may prevent a disease that can cause cancer outweighs the risk of possibly promoting promiscuity.

“Even though we believe that abstinence is the best way to prevent any sexual disease before marriage and in the younger years of the girl’s life, we do support a vaccination that would prevent this horrible disease from taking the lives of our young girls, mothers and grandmothers in their later years,” Combs said.

Gene Rudd of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations said he believed most parents would want to immunize their children as they learned more about the vaccine but opposed making it mandatory.

“Parents should have the choice,” he said. “There are those who would say, ‘We can provide a better, healthier alternative than the vaccine, and that is to teach abstinence.'”

A representative from Merck, Sharp & Dohme, the company behind one of the two vaccines being developed, said it is not the company’s intention to promote the vaccine as a substitute for any other prevention approach, including abstinence.

But Mark Feinberg, vice president of medical affairs and policy for Merck, added that if the goal was to reduce the rates of cervical cancer “as much as possible as quickly as possible, then you want as many people to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” according to the Washington Post.

Alan Kaye, executive director of the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, likened the vaccine to wearing a seat belt. “Just because you wear a seat belt doesn’t mean you’re seeking out an accident,” Kaye said in the Washington Post.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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