The recently-developed vaccine against HPV (designed to prevent cervical cancer) has excited less opposition than was anticipated, but it was always inevitable that some objections would be voiced. Over at the Christian blog Stand To Reason, Steve has explained why he disagrees with this particular method of cancer prevention.
Steve thinks (I bet you never saw this one coming) that the vaccine is an encouragement to engage in sex. Well, whatever floats your boat – personally, I still feel that you can’t beat soft slow-dance music and a few sweet nothings whispered in the ear, but there are a lot of specialised tastes out there and I suppose there might be people who find something erotic about having a needle shoved into their arm.
Ahem. Sorry. What Steve actually thinks, of course, is that the vaccine will encourage people to engage in sex at some future date. He thinks it’s a ‘half-hearted solution’, since it only protects against cervical cancer and not against unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. (I suppose it’s similar to the way we don’t want to bother giving our children tetanus vaccines – after all, they don’t solve other problems of dirty wounds such as cellulitis or sepsis, and we wouldn’t want to give our children the message that they don’t need to bother cleaning and dressing injuries properly.) He thinks that giving this vaccine means we’re assuming that people are ‘merely animals in heat’, and what we should actually be doing is teaching children to ‘rise above their impulses’, practice ‘virtues like patience, temperance, and self-control’, and, in short, save sex for marriage. Which will, he believes, make this vaccine obsolete.
Now, reading through his arguments, there are a few premises of his that I’d question. His belief, for example, that substantial numbers of people look at a small possible future risk of cancer as the deciding factor in decisions over of whether or not to have sex, despite being apparently unmoved by the much more immediate potential problems of unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. And his apparent belief – in the face of staggering amounts of evidence to the contrary – that telling people what to do will be a rapidly-acting and completely effective method of getting them to do it. However, what I’d like to discuss here is his all-or-nothing attitude to sex.
In Steve’s mind, it seems, you’re either patient, temperant, and self-controlled, and, as a result, manage to abstain from sex until marriage, or you’re merely an animal in heat. What’s more, we shouldn’t ‘assume’ that people are going to fall into the latter category (and, of course, vaccinating people counts as assuming this).
Now, there are a couple of points I think need to be considered here. Firstly, while I’m probably not the best person to comment on Christian beliefs, I’ve always understood that it isn’t a part of the Christian religion to believe that people are perfect. On the contrary: one of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity is the imperfection, the flawedness, of human beings. So it’s rather odd to hear a Christian talking as though we could reasonably expect that people are suddenly going to start being perfect. People – even patient, temperant, self-controlled people – are going to slip up from time to time and do things that, in retrospect (and sometimes even at the time), just weren’t that smart an idea. Sometimes, those things are going to involve sex.
I don’t know whether Steve thinks that a patient, temperant, self-controlled person who occasionally has a moment of weakness and does something that he/she normally believes to be wrong is merely an animal in heat or whether he thinks, as I do, that such a person is as human as they come; but I do know that I don’t "assume" that this is going to happen. I see that, sometimes, human nature being what it is, it’s going to happen.
I think that possibly the reason Steve doesn’t seem to want to accept this is because he’s confusing the individual with the general. There’s a big difference between assuming that any given individual is going to do something wrong, and accepting the fact that some individuals are. And it’s because we don’t know which those individuals are going to be that it’s a good idea to vaccinate everyone. I didn’t take my son for his immunisations because I assumed he was going to get a dirty wound or breath in a meningitis germ – I took him for his immunisations because I knew there was a chance that he might do those things, and I wanted him to be protected if that happened.
Going back to Steve’s ‘self-controlled vs. animals’ classification, the other thing he doesn’t seem to be taking into account is that there are people who have different beliefs from him about sex before marriage. When I say that he’s not taking this into account, I assume that he’s aware that it’s the case; what I mean is that he isn’t thinking about the implications. Plenty of people, including myself, have had premarital sex not because of a lack of self-control but because we don’t share his belief that it should be avoided. Steve doesn’t seem to recognise the fact that people may behave in ways of which he doesn’t approve not because they’re any less patient, temperant, or self-controlled than he is, but because they have different beliefs about how these virtues should be applied.
Personally, I don’t plan to teach Jamie or the little brother or sister I hope he’ll someday have that they should abstain from pre-marital sex – I plan to teach them to make up their own minds about that. I also plan to teach them about patience, temperance, and self-control, and to teach them that they should use these virtues, among other things, to be responsible and sensible about having sex. And I plan to do what I can to make sure that they’re protected against disease. If this vaccine lives up to its initial promise as a way of reducing cancer rates, then I’ll be all in favour of them getting it.