Cigarettes have warning labels. So do lawn mowers and ladders. Now, if Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has his way, condoms will, too.

The House voted 421-1 Tuesday for a bill that includes obstetrician Coburn’s proposal to require warning labels on condom packages. The labels would state that condoms do not prevent transmission of the human papillomavirus (HPV). Studies have shown that certain types of HPV cause cervical cancer.

Startling as the idea is, condom warning labels make sense. The National Cancer Institute states that condoms are “ineffective” in stopping the spread of HPV. The public deserves to know there is no such thing as safe sex.

Curiously, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has tried to defeat Coburn’s plan. It contends that warning the public of the dangers of HPV will discourage condom usage across the board — despite the absence of scientific or anecdotal evidence to support the claim. The other lobby against labels is, unsurprisingly, the condom manufacturing industry. Both groups, it seems, would rather maintain the “safe sex” myth than prevent cervical cancer, which kills 5,000 American women every year.

One lobbyist even told Coburn’s aides that HPV tracking, public education and warning labels discriminate against women. The logic or illogic? Women are more likely than men to be counted as HPV positive, because women seek gynecological care more often.

The inconvenient fact, however, is that cervical cancer does discriminate — as does breast cancer, ovarian cancer and osteoporosis. In the interest of women’s health, women have a right, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an obligation, to understand the risks of HPV and effective methods to halt its progress.

The real issue is the politics surrounding safe sex. After two decades of safe-sex education — correct and consistent use of latex condoms — the human papillomavirus has surfaced as an awkward and unfortunate refutation of the notion that it is possible for educated adults to eliminate the risks of sexual activity.

But surely, risking one’s reproductive future should be a greater fear than falling off a ladder. Four of the six House members who spoke against the warning-label provision were female. Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows — and bedfellows strange politics.

This article appeared in the May 12, 2000 edition of USA Today.