An Old Virus Becomes a New Argument for Abstinence

In the past, however, the group has made these arguments largely on ideological grounds. With HPV, the council hopes to have found more objective, scientific footing. Like the partial-birth abortion argument, which FRC was instrumental in using to erode support for Roe v. Wade, HPV has the potential to put a new spin on an old debate. "It's not even just a moral argument anymore," FRC spokesperson Heather Farish says of the group's updated abstinence message. "We're talking about health now. The fact is that you risk contracting a bad sexually transmitted disease if you have sex outside of marriage."

You might also risk contracting a bad sexually transmitted disease inside marriage, a point that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists made in one of its many attempts to persuade Coburn to change his proposals. In an October 19 letter to Coburn, ACOG vice president Ralph Hale wrote that he was "alarmed" by the congressman's statements that not having sex outside marriage is the only way to prevent HPV. Hale also pointed out that women should know that other factors, such as smoking, influence whether a woman will get cervical cancer, and that pap smears can help detect infections before they become dangerous.

Coburn didn't incorporate such information, so ACOG and several other health and women's groups decided to fight the amendments. Though they've been unsuccessful in the House, they're confident they will be able to strike or at least weaken the Coburn language when a companion version of the breast and cervical cancer funding bill comes up for a vote in the Senate.

But even then the HPV debate may not be over. Already the issue is cropping up on the state level. Conservative legislators in Minnesota recently argued—with some success—that warnings about HPV be added to several laws. "They were spouting all kinds of misinformation about [HPV]," says Mary Jo George, a health advocate who was involved in the debates.

Whether on the state or federal level, such an approach is a poor mask for an anti-woman, anti-sex agenda, according to Chris Korsmo, director of government relations for Planned Parenthood. "This is about the idea that women shouldn't be sexual, we should abstain," says Korsmo. "Our punishment for not abstaining is having to report to a registry."

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