When political candidates start using our personal lives — the really personal parts — for their own political gain, they cross a line. And some of the GOP Presidential candidates have ventured into dangerous territory as they’ve been discussing our daughters’ cervical regions to portray themselves in a way they hope will appeal to more voters. And that’s got me pretty testy, because the issue of cervical cancer is a personal one for me.
I’ve already written about what I see as the political motivations in the Rick Perry/Michele Bachmann/HPV vaccine controversy. It’s clear that each one of them has concluded there are points to be made and voters to be wooed with their positions — Perry is positioning himself as the philanthropic ‘I hate cancer‘ candidate, even though he has serious ties to Merck, the manufacturer of the Gardasil vaccine. Michele Bachmann wants to be the ‘I’ll protect little girls from forced government inoculations,‘ even though her position has more to do with campaign maneuvering and scaring parents (whether it’s purposefully or inadvertently) by repeating the story of one woman who claims her daughter developed “mental retardation” after the HPV vaccine.
I’ll always have a serious problem with anyone who plays fast and loose with medical information for political gain. But any discussion about HPV is personal for me.
HPV, or human papillomavirus, is a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer. It’s a pretty common virus — research shows that at least half the population will have it at one time or another. And that’s what happened to me. I was a law student in my mid-20s when I got the news that my Pap test had come back positive and showed a Type II dysplasia — pre-cancerous cells in my cervix.
I remember that moment with total clarity, even though I often can’t remember things that happened just a week ago. I was sitting at my kitchen table, opening my mail to break up the day of studying. I started to read the words that I didn’t totally understand. I’d never heard of human papillomavirus before. Type II dysplasia was medical jargon that sounded somewhat innocuous. But the word “pre-cancerous” — that one was clear. Fortunately, I’d had access to a free annual Pap test through the university health center, so I learned about it early enough to have treatment and follow-up. Knock on wood, I’ve never had a recurrence.
But it’s not just my past experience that makes this HPV as political football discussion personal for me. Now, as the mother of a sixth-grade girl in a location where the HPV vaccine is mandated for school attendance (though there is an opt-out provision), I struggle with the decision about what to do for our daughter. Do we start her on the vaccine now? She seems so young. But I want to protect her and hope she doesn’t have to experience what I did (which may or may not have impacted my fertility). Do I allow myself to be scared by anecdotal reports of side effects or go with the advice of our doctors and start the three-dose series?
That’s a personal and complicated decision for me and my husband, but it’s not political. So I resent any politician who tries to portray themselves as the protectors of our children when they’re doing nothing more than whatever they think will enhance their political futures.
Bachmann is now backing off her initial use of the HPV vaccine story, claiming she was merely repeating what one mother told her and wasn’t trying to suggest a link between the vaccine and adverse mental side effects. I know better. We all know better. It was a convenient political moment — or so she thought — and she took it without thinking about how it would play with mothers like me, who’ve experienced HPV in a very personal way and who know a badly played moment of opportunism when they see it.
Image by Joanne Bamberger. All rights reserved.