Even though the HPV vaccine prevents cervical cancer, only 20% of girls are getting all three shots. Maybe it's time to highlight how it not only prevents cancer, but also that it prevents other medical complications.
The invention of the HPV vaccine should have been treated as nothing short of a miracle. Here was a shot that, if administered properly to every girl in her pre-teen/early teen years, would effectively wipe out cervical cancer and all attendant problems with diagnosing and treating it. Unfortunately, doing that means making sure girls actually get the series of three shots, and that’s where we as a society are falling down on the job. Research reported in the American Cancer Society journal Cancer found that the share of girls who completed the three-shot series declined dramatically from 2006 to 2009, from 50 percent of girls getting the initial shot to 20 percent of girls, leaving 80 percent of girls who initiated the course of treatment still vulnerable to contracting HPV and the possibility of developing cervical cancer.
There’s a number of reasons for this decline, some of which could be addressed pretty easily with simple interventions. Researchers found that girls who started their series with ob-gyns instead of pediatricians did a better job of completing the series. This is probably in part because girls around this age are often transitioning out of seeing a pediatrician regularly, making it harder to remember the shots. Additionally, gynecologists have to deal with the effects of HPV as part of the job, so the importance of finishing the series likely weighs more heavily on them. The fact that the Gardasil ads don’t mention that it’s a three-shot series isn’t helping matters.
Part of it probably has to do with anti-shot propaganda from the religious right anti-choicers, who are willing to use any angle they can to make sure that girls don’t have access to prevention, period, even for cervical cancer, and are willing to punish sexually-active women with pain and even death for having sex. All vaccines hurt and all vaccines have side effects, but to hear people carry on, you’d think Gardasil was somehow the scariest and worst ever. And that’s not even to mention the pure misinformation, with claims of side effects that aren’t even attributable to the vaccine.
In my experience, some of the apathy towards the vaccine is also due to the fact that people are confused about what exactly it prevents. The vaccine was touted as prevention for cervical cancer, but most people assume that we already have prevention for cervical cancer, the Pap test, which is actually a diagnostic tool that can reveal early signs of cervical cancer and lead to early treatment; it is not truly a prevention method. Though Pap smears do allow doctors to find identify pre-cancerous cells and remove them before they metastasize, it does not prevent future recurrences. But when these two are confused, it can seem like the vaccine isn’t that necessary for prevention.
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Let’s not mince words here: The Pap test is not an adequate substitute for the HPV vaccine, and medical authorities need to be more adamant about this. I can personally attest to how true this is. I’ve been good about getting Pap tests, something I have to do every year because I’ve had some bad ones. Regular Pap tests are why I’m almost certainly not going to develop cervical cancer, much less die from it. But that doesn’t mean that illness and suffering has been adequately prevented. Pap tests didn’t prevent me from developing abnormal cervical cells from HPV. The Pap test just helped detect them. Now they have to be removed, with an outpatient surgical procedure that isn’t a big deal in terms of surgery, but is in fact a big deal compared to the mild pain and side effects of the HPV vaccine.
Knowing what I know personally about what can happen to you if you don’t get the vaccine — even if you have access to medical care that prevents HPV from turning into cancer — I’m pretty sad that I didn’t have a chance to get a vaccine and prevent this disease. I’m also baffled that anyone would neglect to get their daughters these shots, all three of them. Unlike some diseases like measles and whooping cough that are now rare because of widespread adoption of vaccines, HPV is as common as dirt. If you don’t get the vaccines, you can basically count on getting one or another strain of HPV at some point in your adult life. But once you do get it, there’s no way really to make sure you have not contracted one of the strains of HPV that causes cervical cancer or other problems, as opposed to a more benign strain. The only real prevention is the vaccine.
Perhaps education about the vaccine needs to be more expansive. Parents don’t just need to be told it prevents cervical cancer, which may seem alien and far off compared to some of the more immediate effects of HPV. Doctors could also explain how the vaccine prevents the development of abnormal cells that lead to painful surgeries, and in some rare cases, infertility. Dangling the carrot of grandkids in front of parents to remind them to get their daughters vaccinated couldn’t hurt. It also couldn’t hurt to point out that the ill effects of HPV can often show up in relatively young women, even as cervical cancer tends to be more common in middle age. Parents need to have full information about what this vaccine provides in order to be vigilant.
Additionally, pediatricians need to be more mindful of the gap in a girl’s care between when she eases out of being a child but before she’s really old enough to see a gynecologist. It’s easy to see how that ambiguity can cause girls to fall through the cracks. Perhaps the low uptake rate of this vaccine can create an incentive for the medical community to address the larger problem of handling care for this group that’s in between childhood and physical maturity.
While some long-acting reversible contraceptive methods were used to undermine women of color's reproductive freedom, those methods still hold the promise of reducing unintended pregnancy among those most at risk.
Since long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs), including intrauterine devices and hormonal contraceptive implants, are among the most effective means of pregnancy prevention, many family planning and reproductive health providers are increasingly promoting them, especially among low-income populations.
But the promotion of LARCs must come with an acknowledgment of historical discriminatory practices and public policy related to birth control. To improve contraceptive access for low-income women and girls of color—who bear the disproportionate effects of unplanned pregnancy—providers and advocates must work to ensure that the reproductive autonomy of this population is respected now, precisely because it hasn’t been in the past.
For Black women particularly, the reproductive coercion that began during slavery took a different form with the development of modern contraceptive methods. According to Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body, “The movement to expand women’s reproductive options was marked with racismfrom its very inception in the early part of [the 20th] century.” Decades later, government-funded family planning programs encouraged Black women to use birth control; in some cases, Black women were coerced into being sterilized.
In the 1990s, the contraceptive implant Norplant was marketed specifically to low-income women, especially Black adults and teenage girls. After a series of public statements about the benefits of Norplant in reducing pregnancy among this population, policy proposals soon focused on ensuring usage of the contraceptive method. Federal and state governments began paying for Norplant and incentivizing its use among low-income women while budgets for social support programs were cut. Without assistance, Norplant was not an affordable option, with the capsules costing more than $300 and separate, expensive costs for implantation and removal.
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Soon, Norplant was available through the Medicaid program. Some states introduced (ultimately unsuccessful) bills that would give cash rewards to entice low-income women on public assistance into using it; a few, such as Tennessee and Washington state, required that women receiving various forms of public assistance get information about Norplant. After proposing a bill to promote the use of Norplant in his state in 1994, a Connecticut legislator made the comment, “It’s far cheaper to give you money not to have kids than to give you money to have kids.” By that year, as Roberts writes, states had spent $34 million on Norplant-related care, much of it for women on Medicaid. Policymakers thought it was completely legitimate and cost-effective to control the reproduction of low-income women.
However, promoting this method among low-income Black women and adolescents was problematic. Racist, classist ideology dictating that this particular population of women shouldn’t have children became the basis for public policy. Even though coercive practices in reproductive health were later condemned, these practices still went on to shape cultural norms around race and gender, as well as medical practice.
This history has made it difficult to move beyond negative perceptions, and even fear, of LARCs, health care, and the medical establishment among some women of color. And that’s why it’s so important to ensure informed consent when advocating for effective contraceptive methods, with choice always at the center.
But how can policies and health-care facilities promote reproductive autonomy?
Health-care providers must deal head on with the fact that many contemporary women have concerns about LARCs being recommended specifically to low-income women and women of color. And while this is part of the broader effort to make LARCs more affordable and increasingly available to communities that don’t have access to them, mechanisms should be put in place to address this underlying issue. Requiring cultural competency training that includes information on the history of coercive practices affecting women of color could help family planning providers understand this concern for their patients.
Then, providers and health systems must address other barriers that make it difficult for women to access LARCs in particular. LARCs can be expensive in the short term, and complicated billing and reimbursement practices in both public and private insurance confuse women and providers. Also, the full cost associated with LARC usage isn’t always covered by insurance.
But the process shouldn’t end at eliminating barriers. Low-income Black women and teens must receive comprehensive counseling for contraception to ensure informed choice—meaning they should be given information on the full array of methods. This will help them choose the method that best meets their needs, while also promoting reproductive autonomy—not a specific contraceptive method.
Clinical guidelines for contraception must include detailed information on informed consent, and choice and reproductive autonomy should be clearly outlined when family planning providers are trained.
It’s crucial we implement these changes now because recent investments and advocacy are expanding access to LARCs. States are thinking creatively about how to reduce unintended pregnancy and in turn reduce Medicaid costs through use of LARCs. The Colorado Family Planning Initiative has been heralded as one of the most effective in helping women access LARCs. Since 2008, more than 30,000 women in Colorado have chosen LARCs as the result of the program. Provider education, training, and contraceptive counseling have also been increased, and women can access LARCs at reduced costs.
The commitment to LARCs has apparently yielded major returns for Colorado. Between 2009 and 2013, the abortion rate among teenagers older than 15 in Colorado dropped by 42 percent. Additionally, the birth rate for young women eligible for Medicaid dropped—resulting in cost savings of up to an estimated $111 million in Medicaid-covered births. LARCs have been critical to these successes. Public-private partnerships have helped keep the program going since 2015, and states including Delaware and Iowa have followed suit in efforts to experience the same outcomes.
Recognizing that prevention is a key component to any strategy addressing a public health concern, those strategies must be rooted in ensuring access to education and comprehensive counseling so that women and teens can make the informed choices that are best for them. When women and girls are given the tools to empower themselves in decision making, the results are positive—not just for what the government spends or does not spend on social programs, but also for the greater good of all of us.
The history of coercion undermining reproductive freedom among women and girls of color in this country is an ugly one. But this certainly doesn’t have to dictate how we move forward.
HUSH relies almost exclusively on interviews with renowned anti-choice “experts” whose work has been discredited. They trot out many of the worn theories that have been rejected by medical and public health experts. The innovation of HUSH, however, is that it has reframed these discredited ideas within the construct of a conspiracy theory.
Another day, another secret recording made in an abortion clinic.
At least, that’s the very strong impression given by some of the scenes contained within the documentary film HUSH, which premiered late last year and is currently making the rounds of film festivals and anti-choice conferences in the United States and internationally, including the National Right to Life Convention that took place in Virginia last month.
The film is the creation of Mighty Motion Pictures and Canadian reporter Punam Kumar Gill, who says in the film that she is pro-choice, a “product of feminism.” It purports to tell the story of “one woman,” Gill, who “investigates the untold effects of abortion on women’s health.”
HUSH—which claims in the film’s credits to have received support from the Canadian government—attempts to cast itself as neither pro-choice nor “pro-life,” but simply “pro-information.” The producers insist throughout the film, in their publicity materials, and in private emails seen by Rewire that their film is objective and balanced.
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That’s how they pitched it to Dr. David Grimes, a highly respected OB-GYN and a clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, who agreed to do on-camera interviews for the film. Grimes now says the producers and reporter misled him about their intentions.
“There was no balance,” Grimes told Rewire. “It’s a hatchet job. It’s obvious.”
Indeed, HUSH relies almost exclusively on interviews with renowned anti-choice “experts” whose work has been discredited, many of whom are featured in Rewire‘s gallery of False Witnesses. They trot out many of the worn theories that have been rejected by medical and public health experts—namely, that abortion is linked to a host of grave physical and mental health threats, “like breast cancer, premature birth, and psychological damage.”
The innovation of HUSH, however, is that it has reframed these discredited ideas within the construct of a conspiracy theory.
When Anti-Choice “Science” Goes Conspiracy Theory
As a piece of propaganda, the use of the conspiracy theory has the advantage of removing the debate over abortion’s safety from the realm of logic. In HUSH‘s topsy-turvy world, the medical establishment becomes the scare-quoted “Medical Establishment,” and the more distinguished or authoritative a person or organization, the more suspect they become.
For reasons that remain murky, the film’s thesis is that the world’s leading reproductive and health organizations—including the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the World Health Organization, along with all of their staff, contractors, and affiliated experts—have been hiding information about the risks of abortion.
This is most apparent when the reporter, Gill, tells the viewers that “if women have the right to abortion, they should also have the right to know” about the risks she believes she has identified.
Later, the film shows graphics highlighting the states that have various informed consent laws—some of which are literally called “A Woman’s Right to Know” acts—that force providers to give patients false information about the safety of abortion. Rather than concluding that the authority of the state has been used to mandate that doctors provide medically unsound “counseling” using the very junk science that Gill presents throughout the film, she hews to the back-to-front logic of all conspiracy theories. In her view, the existence of these laws shows that the risks are real, but that the faceless, nameless “they” still won’t let women in on the their deadly secrets.
In Gill’s world, the unwillingness of organizations to speak with her becomes evidence that they are hiding something.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists tells Gill that it won’t fulfill her requests by giving her an interview because the science is settled; Gill sees this as a sign of conspiracy.
“This is where I started to feel equally suspicious of those denying any link,” Gill tells the viewer, her voice floating over inky footage of the U.S. Capitol at night. Lights from the Capitol dance on the velvety surface of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, and Gill confides: “I felt like I was digging into something much deeper and darker.”
A comical scene ensues where Gill is astonished to find that turning up with a film crew on the grounds of the National Cancer Institute does not suddenly persuade it to grant her an interview with one of its experts.
“What was going on here?” says Gill in her voiceover. “It was like they really didn’t want any questions being asked.”
In fact, the National Cancer Institute had replied to Gill’s multiple requests with links to its website, which contains the conclusive studies that have long since dispelled the notion that any link exists between abortion and breast cancer. The film shows footage of those emails.
Furthermore, Grimes provided Rewire with copies of emails he had exchanged with the film’s producers during its production, in which he gave them citations to relevant studies and warned them that the work of the anti-choice “experts” they had approached had been thoroughly debunked.
After seeing the film, Grimes emailed the producers inquiring why they hadn’t simply asked him to connect them with additional experts.
“Had you truly wanted more pro-choice researchers to speak to these issues, I could have named scores of colleagues from the membership of the Society for Family Planning and Physicians for Reproductive Health who would have been happy to help,” Grimes wrote in a note he shared with Rewire. “You did not ask. That some organizations like the National Cancer Institute did not want to take part in your film in no way implies a reluctance on the part of the broader medical community to speak about abortion research.”
It seems that Gill—whose online biographies give no indication that she is a scientist—would not have been satisfied in hearing about existing research. She tells the viewers that, in her view, “more study is needed to determine the extent of the abortion-breast cancer link,” and concludes that “to entirely deny the connection is ludicrous.”
In an interview with Rewire, Grimes noted that doing such research would be viewed as unethical by reputable scientists.
“That issue is settled, and we should not waste limited resources that should be directed to urgent, unanswered questions, such as the cause of endometriosis and racial disparities in gynecologic cancers,” he said.
Grimes made his dissatisfaction clear to the producers. He wrote to them: “My inference after viewing the film is that you are suggesting a large international conspiracy of silence on the part of major medical and public health organizations, the motivation for which is not specified.”
The corollary to the suspicion cast over the most reputable research and representative bodies is that the film transforms the marginal status of the anti-choice “experts” into a boon.
Seen through HUSH‘s conspiracy theory lens, the fact that the work of people like Priscilla Coleman, David Reardon, and Angela Lanfranchi is rejected by the medical establishment becomes proof not of the unsoundness of their ideas, but rather that a conspiracy is afoot to silence them.
Instead of presenting this small but vociferous group of discredited activists as outliers—shunned because their theories have no scientific basis, or because they lack any credentials relevant to reproductive or mental health, or because they have repeatedly mischaracterized data—HUSH paints them as whistle-blowing renegades determined to set the truth free.
A tearful Lanfranchi recounts the story of patients who came to her with aggressive breast cancer in their 30s. Lanfranchi says she strove to understand “why this was happening,” and realized that each of these young women had had abortions, which she then concluded had caused their cancer. Lanfranchi said her hopes that the public would learn of this risk were dashed over time.
“Over the years I’ve realized that, no, it didn’t matter how many studies there were,” she tells viewers. “That information was not going to get out.”
Joel Brind says that he has worked with a colleague whom he says he later discovered was pro-choice, but that their views on abortion never came up. “This is about science,” he tells Gill. “This is about the effect on women and whether or not abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. Period.”
Gill asks both Lanfranchi and Brind whether they are trying to “stop abortion,” or whether they “want abortion to go away.” Both answer that all they want is for women to be informed when they exercise their choice.
The film makes no mention of the fact that both have been anti-choice activists for decades; they have each testified in support of anti-choice laws in both legislative and judicial proceedings, and both have participated in the extreme right-wing, anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ World Congress of Families.
To the extent that HUSH acknowledges these activists’ bias, it is couched in a softer light that is linked, implicitly, to their religious views—a reality raised by Grimes in his on-camera interview, in which he notes, accurately, that the anti-choice “intellectuals” often lack the relevant medical or scientific qualifications to do the type of work they purport to do, but that they do tend to share religious convictions that lead them to oppose abortion and contraception.
That allows the producers to imply that the False Witnesses are perhaps victims of discrimination; to suggest that their work is being discounted because of the activists’ religious beliefs, and not because the work itself has been thoroughly debunked. Play the ball, not the man, appears to be the producers’ plea.
It’s a conspiracy theory twilight zone: where medical groups withhold information for reasons so cloudy that they cannot be articulated, but where people who have for years worn their beliefs on their sleeves cannot be evaluated with those political views in mind.
After asserting that she is, herself, pro-choice, Gill says she “finds validity” in the claims of the anti-choice advocates, and that she finds it “sickening” that the “media and health organizations have spent their energies closing the case and vilifying those who advocate in favor of the link, instead of investigating any and all reasons why breast cancer rates among young women have increased and women are dying.”
The producer, Joses Martin, did not answer Rewire’s questions about the experts he and his team had selected, other than to say, “We are very proud of the balanced approach that we’ve taken in this documentary that is neither anti-abortion nor pro-abortion.”
Another Instance of Secret Recordings Made in Abortion Clinics
What troubles Grimes most about the film is not so much that he was cast as the face of an international conspiracy by virtue of being the sole pro-choice physician to appear on camera, but that he may be associated with people who appear to have made secret recordings in at least one abortion clinic.
The footage and audio in question have been heavily edited, and it is difficult to discern what is real from what has been staged or spliced to give certain effects.
Early in the film, Gill is shown standing in the entry path to what the producers identify as a “Seattle abortion clinic.” As she makes her way inside, the footage swaps to guerilla-style, hidden camera shots, which capture wall artwork that appears in some Planned Parenthood clinics. Viewers see Gill’s face in the waiting room, as well as blurs of other people there. The film then swaps to audio recordings without any video footage. Gill can be heard posing as a patient, receiving counseling from a woman who is identified as a “health center manager.” This audio is used twice more during the film.
In Washington state, it is a crime to make audio or video recordings of people without their consent. Similar laws are in place in California, Florida, and Maryland, states where David Daleiden and his co-defendants from the Center for Medical Progress made their surreptitious videos of Planned Parenthood employees and members of the National Abortion Federation.
Grimes asked the producers whether they had obtained permission to make any of those recordings; Rewire asked the producers whether the recordings were in fact made in Seattle.
The producer, Joses Martin, replied to Grimes that he would “not be disclosing the name or location of the clinic or the name of the individual recorded to yourself or anyone else.”
“We have kept this information undisclosed and private both in the film and out of the film to not bring any undue burden on them. We’re certainly not implicating anyone involved of wrong doings, as was the goal in the Center For Medical Progress case,” Martin wrote in an email shared with Rewire.
In an email to Rewire, Martin did not answer our specific questions about the recordings, but asserted, “We did not break any laws in the gathering of our footage.”
Planned Parenthood had no comment on whether the crew had obtained consent to film inside its clinics, or whether Gill had misrepresented herself throughout her conversation with the counselor. Nor did the organization comment on the increasing use of secret recordings by anti-choice activists within its clinics. In a federal suit, Planned Parenthood has sued Daleiden for breaches of similar laws in California, Florida, and Maryland.
The branch of the Canadian government that the producers credited with supporting the film was less sanguine when informed about the apparent use of secret recordings made in American abortion clinics.
The film’s credits say that it was produced “with the assistance of the Government of Alberta, Alberta Media Fund,” but when Rewire contacted that Canadian province to learn why it had funded a piece of anti-choice propaganda, a spokesperson distanced the fund from the film.
“We have entered into conversations with the production company but we do not at this point have a formal agreement in place, and we were not aware that the production had been completed,” the spokesperson said. “We’re not able to comment on any funding because to date we have not funded the project. Thank you for bringing the use of our logo to our attention and we’ll be in touch with the producers to discuss.” The producers did not reply to Rewire’s question about their use of the logo.
Ironically, while the producer, Martin, did reply to emails from both Grimes and Rewire (albeit without answering specific questions), the reporter, Gill, remained silent. She never answered questions about what she knew about the backgrounds of the False Witnesses to whose work she lent such credence. She didn’t respond to our questions about whether she obtained permission to record video or audio within abortion clinics, or where those clinics were located. And she didn’t reply to our questions about the nature of her relationship with the extreme anti-choice group Live Action, who also received a credit at the end of the film.
To a reporter such as Gill, such silence would surely have been deeply suspicious.
Rewire Investigative Reporter, Amy Littlefield, contributed to this report.