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Rick Perry’s decision to mandate HPV vaccines for sixth-grade girls back in 2007 has become a bone of contention on the campaign trail. Under the terms of Perry’s executive order, 12 year old girls in Texas were supposed to receive the Gardasil vaccine, which inoculates them against the human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV is quite widespread, with approximately 50% of sexually-active adults acquiring it during their lifetime. However, according to the Center for Disease Control, in 90% of cases, the body’s immune system eliminates the virus without any adverse effects. But in the remaining 10% of cases, the virus can have serious side effects, including genital warts or cervical cancer.
It is because of the risk of sexually-transmitted diseases that many medical authorities recommend administering the HPV vaccine to all girls before they become sexually active. Even though the executive order was ultimately overturned by the Texas legislature, Perry’s attempt to impose the HPV vaccine by executive fiat is hard to reconcile with his promise to reduce the government’s role in people’s lives.
Fellow GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann criticized Perry’s decision, saying that “to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong.” Even Democrats have joined in the criticism. During the 2010 election, they ran attack ads featuring menacing images of a needle poised to strike a young girl’s arm.
Perry’s decision also vexes social conservatives because inoculating girls against sexually-transmitted disease flies in the face of their support for abstinence-only sex education. Conservative Christian leaders were vocal in their opposition to the executive order, and their opposition was instrumental in convincing the legislature to overturn it.
Another issue with Perry’s support for the HPV vaccine is that Merck, the company that makes Gardasil, donated $30,000 to Perry’s campaign. The company also employs Perry’s former chief-of-staff as a lobbyist. Naturally, these close connections have given rise to claims that the Texas governor was acting more for the benefit of a major donor than the general public.
Although Michele Bachmann accused Perry of “crony capitalism,” he claimed that there was nothing untoward about the situation. “”If you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended,” he replied. However, as noted above, Merck’s contribution was actually much greater than the $5,000 quoted by Perry.
Furthermore, Merck and its subsidiaries also contributed $380,000 to the Republican Governors Association once Perry took the helm of that organization in 2006. Now that Perry is coming under fire for his decision, he seems intent on distancing himself from it. During a recent debate, he admitted that, if he had to do it all over again, he would have approached the matter differently.
Meanwhile, his spokesman Mark Milner, accused Bachmann and others of staging histrionics in order to draw attention to themselves. “You have candidates out there that are trying to get attention and will throw outlandish accusations out there just to get their name in the paper,” Milner said. “What drove the governor on this issue was protecting life.”
Despite the Sturm und Drang that this has generated, Perry is still the candidate most likely to appeal to the right wing of the GOP. His social conservative credentials are still stronger than those of Mitt Romney, who is still struggling to overcome grassroots Republican opposition to Massachusetts’ healthcare law.
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