Why, in God’s name, would pro-abstinence conservatives be trying to block a vaccine that could wipe out HPV?

n June 2002, as the invasion of Iraq was looming, the Pentagon suddenly found itself with an opportunity to take out Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the well-known terrorist lurking in the northern part of the country. To the surprise of military officials, as the Wall Street Journal and NBC News later reported, the White House nixed the operation. Policy makers were using Zarqawi’s presence in Iraq as one of their rationales for going to war, and getting rid of him in advance might have undermined their case.

Three years later, with Zarqawi leading a stubborn insurgency, that decision seems somewhat shortsighted. Today there’s another war taking place: a war against sex. And the abstinence movement — which advocates complete chastity until marriage and which is rapidly replacing sex education in America’s schools with its own propaganda—has just made a tactical decision very similar to the one the White House did with Zarqawi. Only this time it’s not a miscalculation. It’s a coldly cynical strategy. And the deaths that result may dwarf the bloodshed in Iraq.

The terrorist in this case is human papillomavirus (HPV), an extremely common sexually transmitted disease that sometimes causes genital warts. Usually HPV is harmless, but a tiny fraction of strains can lead to cervical cancer, and that’s bad. In fact, 93 percent of the women who develop cervical cancer — which kills up to 4,000 a year in the U.S. and 250,000 around the world — are infected with HPV.

Recently two major pharmaceutical companies announced that they are on the verge of perfecting HPV vaccines. Within a few years a single shot could wipe out 90 percent of all cervical cancers. The reaction from the abstinence movement was immediate. “It’s an outrage!” said Leslee Unruh, president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse. The influential Family Research Council has vowed to fight the approval of any HPV vaccine.

Why? Because the abstinence movement needs HPV out there to help justify its war. HPV, you see, isn’t blocked by latex, which means that as long as it’s around, chastity pushers can argue that condoms are essentially worthless. Abstinence education literature puts more emphasis on HPV than on just about any other STD — it’s the bug that supposedly gives the lie to the safe-sex approach of comprehensive sex education. It’s not uncommon to hear claims — lies, that is — that HPV kills more people than HIV/AIDS.

But now the truth is out. The abstinence advocates have no interest in preventing death. They would rather use it to serve as a warning against sex. They don’t put it quite that way, of course, but what they do say is hardly less horrifying. “Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex,” said Bridget Maher, a policy analyst at the Family Research Council. Some even oppose the vaccine for young people who are already having sex. “Would this vaccine not enable or encourage them to continue to be sexually active?” asked Scott Phelps of the Abstinence and Marriage Education Partnership. “We’re all for preventing cancer,” he said, employing a phrase sane people seldom follow with the word but, “but is this really the way to do it?”

It sure is. Unmarried people have sex and will continue to have sex whether there’s an HPV vaccine or not. If the abstinence movement wants to talk them out of it — preferably without silencing authentic sex education — let them state honestly that their objections are purely moral. If their case is persuasive, they shouldn’t have to sacrifice 4,000 Americans a year to make it.