Belaboring the Obvious

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Time to Weigh In On...

... some of the stupidest and meanest people on the planet. Possibly in the galaxy. Maybe in the known universe. Pick the dumbest civilization in any episode of Star Trek, and these bozos beat 'em for sheer unadulterated, misery-inducing cluelessness.

I am speaking, of course, about The Family Research Council. This august bunch of pre-Jurassic reptiles have decided that, according to their head gila monster, Tony "Godzilla" Perkins, "[o]ur concern is that this vaccine will be marketed to a segment of the population that should be getting a message about abstinence. It sends the wrong message." (See here for that idiotic quote.)

The vaccine in question is to prevent human papilloma virus (HPV) infection and was recently approved by the FDA. HPV is implicated in many of the cases of cervical cancer in women today, and cervical cancer is the second-leading cancer in women each year (second only to breast cancer). Why on earth would the Family Research Council be in such a knicker-twisting upset over a medical breakthrough?

Because HPV is predominantly transmitted by sexual activity.

While some forms of HPV are exceedingly common, and most women have been infected with some form of the virus without long-term ill effect, increased sexual activity increases the risk of infection and possible cervical cancer, which is sort of the reason why the cretins at FRC are trying to prevent the use of the vaccine. Because the optimum time to receive the vaccine is when a girl is eleven or twelve, before the likely onset of sexual activity, they are claiming that the vaccination is an inducement for young girls to engage in sexual activity.

Apart from this being the sort of "A" is true + "B" is true = "C" is true false tautology that makes professors of logic want to put razor to throat, it's like saying, "we can, by sheer force of will and praise of Jaysus avoid this disease." That worked really well on the black plague, I hear.

And make no mistake about it, this is a plague of a different sort. About 14,000 women in the US are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. About 4,000 die each year as a result. The vaccine is said to be 100% effective in preventing HPV-related cervical cancer, and, as far as is known to date, is without side effects.

Now, I think, from a misguided libertarian point of view, that it's okay if Tony Perkins has religious objections to having his own 13-year-old daughter vaccinated (which he does). He and his peers, years from now, upon finding that their middle-aged offspring suddenly have an entirely avoidable life-threatening disease, are entitled to throw up their hands and wail that it's god's will and pray their pointy little heads off if they wish.

But, they don't have the right to make that decision for the rest of us. If they want to park their 6th century intellectual headgear in their colons, fine. Their choice.

But, they aren't satisfied with that. They have been lobbying the FDA to not approve the vaccine, on the basis of their moral arguments, rather than on the science. Now that the FDA has finally approved the vaccine, they are now trying to prevent it from being added to the set of vaccinations required for admission to the public schools (most states have a list of such in their formularies, and inclusion is often necessary before insurance or state low-income aid programs will pay for the vaccination--and insurance companies are always looking for ways to avoid paying for health care they can deem as elective). If states were to bend to the wishes of the religious right, this would mean the working poor would, once again, be the people most likely to be unable to afford this improvement in health care.

What's at the heart of this, of course, is an atavistic desire on the part of the control freaks of society, such as Perkins, to stigmatize sex and to meld sex and sin--and disease and death are the wages of sin. They care not that this disease isn't just transmitted by casual sex. Rape and many other types of criminal sexual contact are sources of transmission, and there's at least one study suggesting that transmission is possible through casual contact.

This is also representative of what is becoming an all-too-typical response of the Christian right to science in general. In earlier times, the whacked-out religious maniacs could be ignored, but not today. They have enough political clout to push the envelope, to make religion a force to be reckoned with, even in the make-up of the panels of the FDA which determine such matters.

Dr. Lester Crawford, former head of the FDA, met with James Dobson's approval, so the science under him (including nixing the Plan B over-the-counter approval) was good and had a sort of scientific truthiness about it. No matter that Crawford, as head of the FDA, was a veterinarian. (Now, in fairness, a lot of studies the FDA requires are animal studies and a knowledge of both animals and pharmacology, which Crawford has, would be necessary at some point in the process of drug approval, but the FDA director, as the top guy in charge, maybe ought to be a people doctor with pharmacology experience, one would think, with maybe a good, solid vet with drug experience a little lower down the totem pole. Crawford was undoubtedly nominated for the top FDA job because he also met with the approval of the religious right.)

Crawford helped cause a lot of dissent which has cost the FDA some good personnel. After the FDA's Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs voted 23-4 to authorize over-the-counter sale of the Plan B contraceptive, Dr. W. David Hager (chairman of the Physicians Resource Council at James Dobson's Focus on the Family and a political protege of Beverly LaHaye, wife of Tim LaHaye of Left Behind notoriety), unbeknownst to the full committee, sent a dissenting opinion to Crawford, citing concerns already disputed by the results of several studies in the hands of the full committee. When Crawford overrode the recommendations of the advisory committee and the Office of Women's Health on Plan B, its director, Dr. Susan Wood, resigned in protest. By the time Crawford issued the decision, Hager was already gone from the committee. After a damaging article appeared in The Nation, he was not reappointed (or privately declined to be reappointed; the order of events is not certain).

Although it's still not clear if Crawford's pick for her replacement was just a case of going with what he knew, or if there was some other motive, Crawford filled Wood's position with a fellow male veterinarian, Dr. Norris Alderson in September, 2005. His appointment was announced via email to many women's health groups on the FDA's mailing list and the reaction was quick and negative. Three days later, the Office of Women's Health sent out a new announcement of Theresa Toigo as acting director (there was no mention of the previous Alderson appointment in the later announcement).

Barely a week after the Alderson announcement, Crawford abruptly announced his retirement, citing his age as a factor. This resignation came just two months after his confirmation by the Senate, although he had been acting commissioner since the previous February. As of April, 2006, Crawford has been the subject of a grand jury investigation for some of his financial dealings, and for allegedly making false statements to Congress.

The wreckage continued after Crawford left. Over-the-counter Plan B still has not been approved, and his acting successor, Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, still has not been confirmed because two Senators, Clinton and Murray, have put holds on his confirmation hearing because the FDA has not yet overridden Crawford's politically-motivated decision on Plan B. The FDA's Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs is now down to fifteen members.

The religious right has attempted to exert its will on a number of other government agencies, either directly or indirectly (for example, James Dobson reported, then retracted, that Karl Rove had called and asked for Dobson's blessing with regard to the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court). Scientists working for NASA have complained that their work was being edited for biblical Genesis correctness by a press office flack who, it turned out, had lied on his resume about his education, claiming an undergraduate degree he had not yet earned. U.S. Park Service employees have received instructions to return religious markers to the Grand Canyon and to include religious texts on the creation of the Grand Canyon to the site's Park Service-controlled bookstore. As well, Bush's decision on stem cell research had less to do with soul-searching than Rove's political advice. He tried to give the religious right as much as he could without making it obvious to every scientist in the country, and still, he was chided by them for not applying an absolute ban. Bush has publicly, but not officially, advocated the teaching of creationism/intelligent design alongside evolution in public school science classes. And, back to sex again, the CDC was forced to remove longstanding information on condom performance.

Chris Mooney has detailed many of the political and religious influences on this administration in his The Republican War on Science. But, this latest attempt to disparage the use of a vaccine which could prevent cancer in thousands of women per year in their later years isn't just an attempt to impose religious dogma on the public. It's also a pathology infused with a level of meanspiritedness, animus and grim retribution that hasn't been seen since the Inquisition.


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