Paraphrased from today's Washington Post:
A new vaccine will be available next year or soon thereafter which will provide virtually 100% protection against two of the strains of HPV (genital warts; human papilloma virus) that are linked to an increased risk of cervical cancer in women.
Health advocates say: Good news! We can protect women from a cancer which now takes the lives of 3,700 women each year in the US.
Social conservatives say: But wait...if girls and women are protected from the risks of cervical cancer associated with contracting HPV, then they will feel free to engage in risky sexual behaviors, like having more than one lifetime sexual partner. How will we motivate them to be abstinent until marriage, and faithful during marriage?
(I guess that the conservatives forgot about HIV/AIDS, herpes, and a host of other STDs/STIs...)
These two groups are debating whether to make the immunizations mandatory (health advocates) or optional (conservatives) for children/young adults.
Social conservatives are so committed to eradicating sex outside of marriage that they are willing to risk people's lives for their moral vision. It's almost as though they welcome the costs of sexual activity as an impetus for sexual morality. If we can just keep people terrified of the consequences of sex outside of marriage, then they will be abstinent. Maybe if we could convince them that sex without the wedding band causes you to die instantaneously -- you stick it in, and just explode (*boom*) -- then they'd be sure to be abstinent!
Except it doesn't work. Fear is a strong motivator, to be sure, but it is not the only relevant motivation -- pleasure and affection and desire for intimacy are strong motivators as well. And adolescents are often convinced that they will not be affected by risks (termed the personal fable) -- it's hard to get them to wear seat belts, and that isn't even much of an impediment to enjoyment! How many young women think to themselves...Hey, I'd like to have sex, but I might get cervical cancer as the result of an STD. Gosh, it's not worth it...I'll wait until marriage. Many people don't think that their partners could be infected with an STD/STI, and I suspect that a great many young people don't even know that HPV can increase a woman's chance of developing cervical cancer. (Particularly since many sex-ed programs have been eviscerated to a bare-bones "don't do it" message.)
Further, one cannot control whether one's partner is faithful or not -- the abstinent-until-marriage and faithful-during-marriage woman may still get infected with HPV from her husband...is she supposed to die as a penance for his lack of sexual fidelity? And this doesn't even consider issues of forced sex. In short, apart from the obvious question of whether having sex with more than one partner in one's entire life is, in fact, the correct moral stance, the fear-based approach is unlikely to succeed in enforcing this stance.
Let's hope that the health advocates win this one -- I'd hate to see more women die from a preventable disease just to assuage the fears of the conservatives that young people might have sex before marriage.