STD Awareness: The Vaginal Microbiome and Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), which has been nicknamed “the common cold of STDs” — because pretty much every sexually active person will get it at some point. Luckily, that scary stat is poised to change as more people receive the HPV vaccination, which protects against nine major strains of the virus.

HPV jumps easily from person to person, spread by pretty much all types of sexual contact. For most people, the infection clears up within 8 to 13 months, but sometimes the infection develops into a chronic condition, which increases risk for certain cancers — including cervical cancer, but also cancers of the anus, genitals, and throat. Unfortunately, it’s hard to predict if your immune system will vanquish your infection, or if you’ll develop a chronic infection.

Members of the lactobacilli family, keeping vaginas healthy across the globe. Image: Josef Reischig

Luckily, the vagina has some tricks up its sleeve to protect itself from HPV, and some of its best weapons are bacteria. Yep — a healthy vagina isn’t germ-free. To the contrary, it needs lactobacilli and other beneficial microbes to maintain a healthy environment. Bacteria from the Lactobacillus genus produce lactic acid and other chemicals, which help keep dangerous bugs away. Vaginal environments in which Lactobacillus gasseri dominate, for example, are more likely to clear HPV infections. L. crispatus helps trap HIV in a thick mucus, reducing infection risk. Other lactobacilli species secrete chemicals that ward off yeast infections. Sometimes, however, good bacteria lose this turf war, and “bad guys” move in.


The population of microbes that live in your vagina are known collectively as the vaginal microbiome.


University of Arizona researchers in Phoenix performed a “census” of the vaginal microbial communities of 100 premenopausal women. They learned that women who have cervical cancer or precancerous abnormalities have drastically different vaginal microbiomes. Healthy vaginas were generally dominated by lactobacilli, but as cervical health declined, their populations declined, and “bad” bacteria took over. One such bad guy, called Sneathia, was linked to HPV infection, precancer, and cervical cancer.

Which Came First?

Finding a new vaginal “bad guy” was exciting, and Sneathia had previously been linked to other gynecological problems, ranging from bacterial vaginosis to pregnancy complications. But the researchers were looking at a snapshot in time — they didn’t know what came first, the Sneathia or the cervical abnormalities. Were lactobacilli protecting the cervix whereas Sneathia were harming it, or did a chronic HPV infection set the stage for Sneathia to move in and thrive? It’s a real “chicken-and-egg” conundrum. Continue reading

Before Roe v. Wade: The 50th Anniversary of a Landmark California Case

Demonstrator at New York City Women’s March, January 21, 2017. Photo: © Edith Marie Photography

“Should abortion be legalized?” That was the question posed on a forum in 1964 on Pacifica Radio. Nine years before the Supreme Court would give its own answer in Roe v. Wade, a trio of panelists debated the issue for listeners in Los Angeles.

Prompting the forum was a bill in the Legislature to liberalize California’s abortion laws. At the time, abortion was illegal unless the mother’s life was at risk. The proposed legislation, endorsed by the California Medical Association, allowed exceptions in cases of rape or incest, or when a pregnancy was not life-threatening but posed other harm to a patient’s physical or mental health.


People v. Belous marked the first time a patient’s constitutional right to abortion was upheld in the courts.


Did the bill go too far — or not far enough? Each panelist had a different take. Attorney Zad Leavy discussed the legal quandaries of people facing unintended pregnancies. He was cautious about full legalization but critical of the existing ban. Dr. Robert Hood, an area surgeon, opposed the legalization of abortion and even questioned the validity of the medical reasons commonly cited for justifying abortions. In sharp contrast, Dr. Leon Belous, an attending physician at LA’s Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, did not mince words in his support for legal abortion on demand.

Belous felt outlawing abortion was an example of “man’s inhumanity to women.” As he put it, “An injured dog on the street is treated with more sympathy and concern” than the countless women dying annually, or who risked that fate, from self-induced or black-market abortions. “I have seen seven to 10 of these women every month for the last 32 years,” Belous continued. “I have been seeing them in my office, many of them in the operating room, and some of them in the morgue.” He told of one who had been raped and another in desperate poverty, unable to support a child.

Belous concluded by sharing his hope that California’s “antiquated, unrealistic, and barbaric” ban would be overturned. Five years later, Belous was at the center of a case that did just that. Continue reading

Katharine Dexter McCormick: Fierce Feminist and Secret Smuggler

Katharine Dexter McCormick was born into a life of wealth and privilege — and progressive politics. The family home in which she was born in 1875 had once been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Her parents encouraged her education, and she was among the first women to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and, in 1904, one of its first female graduates, having earned a bachelor’s degree in biology.


Katharine McCormick harnessed stereotypes about wealthy women to hide subversive acts of civil disobedience in plain sight.


Katharine wanted to be a doctor, but in 1904 she married Stanley McCormick, a Princeton-educated man and heir to a vast fortune. Her oath to stay by his side in sickness and in health, until death did them part, was tested just two years into their marriage, when Stanley’s mental health had deteriorated to the point that he was institutionalized. He was diagnosed with what today is called schizophrenia, and his family sent him to their mansion outside Santa Barbara, a “gilded cage” run by an all-male staff of doctors and nurses who provided round-the-clock care.

The all-male staff was necessary, as Stanley had developed violent tendencies that seemed to be directed primarily toward women. Katharine went nearly two decades without any physical contact with her husband — though she could write letters, talk to him on the phone, or crouch in the bushes and watch him through binoculars. Katharine stayed married to him until his death in 1947. The entire time, she was heavily involved in directing his care — despite constant clashes with his family — and remained optimistic for a cure.

But outside of her marriage, Katharine cultivated a rich life, devoting herself to women’s rights and becoming a high-ranking leader in the fight for the right to vote. After women’s suffrage was won, she was eager to turn her attention to the next fight — and was invigorated by the energy of the birth control movement, which, like the suffrage movement before it, drew ire and outrage from both church and state. Continue reading

Emotionally Abusive Relationships and Healing: In My Own Words

The following post comes to us via Ava Budavari-Glenn, a political communications major and a nonprofit communications minor who is entering her sophomore year at Emerson College. She is a writer whose work focuses mainly on advocacy, and a community organizer who has worked for nonprofit organizations and political campaigns. She is a media and communications intern at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona.

Part I: Signs of an Abusive Relationship

I’m not ready to tell my story yet. I don’t know when or if I ever will be. But I am writing for my younger self, who was in the middle of a toxic situation and didn’t have the language to understand what was happening to her. I have not studied this academically — I am just talking about my own experience. And sometimes that’s what people need to listen to. I know I did and still do.

Emotional abuse is an attempt to control another person through behavior that causes psychological trauma or distress. Continue reading to identify the warning signs of an emotionally abusive relationship.

They body shame you. It may be in a sarcastic tone or disguised as a joke, just ways for them to tease you because they “like you.” It may also be covert; they might not directly call you fat or ugly, but find other ways to degrade your body. Tell you you’re too slow. You don’t run fast enough. You’re not strong enough. They may make fun of your athletic ability, call you names even if you’re just playing a game for fun.

Their mood is unreliable. Everyone has good days and bad days, but the kind of day anyone is having should not determine how they treat people. They’re happy to see you one minute and completely ignoring you the next. They are flirting with you one minute and glaring at you 15 minutes later. You haven’t changed your behavior or what you have said. Whether you can have a nice conversation is totally dependent on their behavior, giving them complete control of the situation. They make you feel like everything is your fault. You find yourself asking questions like, “What am I doing wrong to make this person so upset?” That is a power imbalance, which is one way they trap you: It makes you think that “they have good moments too, they are not always bad” — because if they were always horrible it would make it easier for you to leave. This back-and-forth unpredictability is a way to control you. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Winning One War on Cancer

Cancer starts with the uncontrolled division of cells.

The developed world is in the midst of a huge nosedive in genital warts and cervical “precancer” — all thanks to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. This simple shot trains the immune system to defend itself against HPV, a virus that causes genital warts and several types of cancer. Most sexually active people will be exposed to it in their lifetimes — it’s even been nicknamed the “common cold” of sexually transmitted infections.

Gardasil 9 protects against seven strains of HPV that collectively cause 90% of cervical cancers and anal cancers, plus the two HPV strains that are jointly responsible for 90% of genital warts. Vaccination also reduces the frequency of “precancers,” which are cellular abnormalities that can be treated before progressing into full-fledged cancer — meaning less time, money, and anxiety spent dealing with follow-up procedures and treatments.


The HPV vaccine is an anti-cancer vaccine.


The vaccine is safe and effective — and when we say “effective,” we mean it could lead to the eradication of HPV, and with it the cancers it causes. A recent analysis of 66 million vaccine recipients published in The Lancet points to plummeting rates of genital warts and precancer. Among teenage girls, there was an 83% drop in HPV-16 and HPV-18 infections (the two strains of HPV that together cause 70% of cervical cancers) — and cervical precancers were cut in half.

The most dramatic gains were made in countries that offered the HPV vaccine to both boys and girls. Additionally, there were even decreases in the HPV strains that aren’t covered by the vaccine — evidence of “cross-protection,” the phenomenon in which the immune system recognizes close relatives of the viruses it has been trained to attack. Even people who did not receive the vaccine were less likely to catch the virus, simply because their risk was reduced if their partners were vaccinated. Continue reading

Sentencing Survivors: The Trials of Joan Little and Cyntoia Brown

Cyntoia Brown. Photo: Tennessee Department of Corrections

After spending almost half her life behind bars, Cyntoia Brown leaves prison this month, freed on the clemency she received in January. Brown was convicted in 2006, at age 18, for committing murder and robbery to escape an alleged sex trafficking scheme.

While it marks the beginning of freedom for Brown, this month also marks the anniversary of a pivotal event in the life of Joan Little, whose own escape from sexual violence — and its aftermath — have drawn comparisons to Brown’s.


A justice system that targets people of color makes Joan Little’s and Cyntoia Brown’s cases the exception rather than the rule.


The incidents that fractured their lives were separated in time by decades, but otherwise the details share numerous similarities. Both Brown and Little are women of color. Both lived in the South. And both gained strong public support from activists and celebrities who viewed them as women caught in a criminal justice system fraught with racism and sexism.

In the Hands of the People

The case of Joan (pronounced “Jo Ann”) Little represented a turning point in the way Black victims of sexual violence were treated in the courts. Throughout much of U.S. history, sexually degrading Black women has been part and parcel of maintaining the racial order in many communities — enough so that, as one Black newspaper observed in the 1950s, it was a “commonplace experience for many of our women … to be propositioned openly by white men. You can pick up accounts of these at a dime a dozen in almost any community.” Continue reading

When Miscarriage Is a Crime

The following post comes to us via Ava Budavari-Glenn, a political communications major and a nonprofit communications minor who is entering her sophomore year at Emerson College. She is a writer whose work focuses mainly on advocacy, and a community organizer who has worked for nonprofit organizations and political campaigns. She is a media and communications intern at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona.

Imagine losing your baby only to be arrested for it.

That’s exactly what happened to Marshae Jones.

Last June, 27-year-old African-American woman Marshae Jones was indicted by an Alabama grand jury on manslaughter charges when she lost her 5-month-old fetus after being shot. The person who shot Jones, whom the police claimed was acting in self-defense, was not charged in the shooting. Jones, however, was held responsible for being in a fight while pregnant, and faced up to 20 years in prison. Due to a dedicated group of activists and lawyers — and public backlash — charges were dropped and Jones was set free. Unfortunately, Jones’ case is not that unique. Since Roe v. Wade, there have been several cases in which women were arrested for miscarriage or stillbirth.


Criminalizing pregnancy loss casts pregnant people as vessels rather than people.


A fetus is a person by law in Alabama, and therefore can qualify as a victim of homicide. Someone like Jones could be held responsible for the death of a person if her actions are judged to be negligent. And in states like Arkansas, the language that defines “fetal personhood” is extremely vague, so a person could potentially be arrested for waiting even one minute to call the authorities after a pregnancy loss, or for engaging in behaviors that could put a pregnancy at risk. In Arkansas, five women have been arrested for stillbirth or miscarriage: three between 1884 and 1994, one in 2015, and another in 2016.

Many of the laws that have been used to prosecute people for miscarriage and stillbirth are loophole laws, meaning that since the courts cannot technically arrest someone for losing their baby, other laws must be written that can punish the pregnant person in different terms but still have the desired effect. “Concealing a birth” and “concealing a death” are felonies or misdemeanors in several states, and many people arrested after miscarriage or stillbirth are often charged under these laws. Also, many of the laws that have convicted these women are those that give fetuses, and sometimes fertilized eggs, “personhood.” When a fetus is considered a person in the eyes of the law, the rights of the pregnant person are often swept away. Continue reading