Foes continue to hammer Perry over HPV

Posted Wednesday, Sep. 14, 2011

By Aman Batheja

Four years ago, Gov. Rick Perry was dealt a rare political defeat.

The Texas Republican's controversial order to require young girls to be vaccinated against a virus that causes cervical cancer was overturned by the state Legislature. Perry grudgingly accepted the loss.

While the HPV mandate was largely left for dead as a matter of state policy, it has remained very much alive politically. Both Democratic and Republican opponents have hammered Perry on the issue ever since and now those hoping to beat Perry to the GOP nomination for president believe they have found an opening.

"The question is, is it about life, or was it about millions of dollars and potentially billions for a drug company," Michele Bachmann said at Monday's CNN debate.

Back in 2007, Perry seemed on the leading edge of a national trend when he tried to make Texas the first state to require girls entering the sixth grade be vaccinated for the human papillomavirus, known as HPV. Parents would have had the option to opt out.

Not only was his order struck down, but no state has enforced such a mandate since then. Both Virginia and Washington, D.C. officially require some students to be vaccinated against HPV but the mandate isn't enforced in Virginia. Over the past month, Perry has started apologizing for the order, saying he should have made the policy "opt-in" and pursued the issue through the Legislature.

During the debate, Bachmann mocked Perry's efforts to walk back his order, saying "Little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don't get a mulligan."

The executive order, announced late on a Friday, was an unusual approach for Perry, who more often has pushed his agenda via the Legislature. Three months earlier, state Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, had filed a bill very similar to Perry's order but Perry's office never talked to her about it, she said.

The question of whether states should mandate Merck's Gardasil has been a topic of debate around the country ever since the FDA approved it in 2006. Many doctors endorse the vaccine but some parents worry that their kids might interpret the inoculation as permission to be sexually promiscuous.

While Perry's order came as a surprise, his position on the issue was not a secret. In September 2006, Chris Bell, Perry's Democratic opponent, said the state should require all young women to get the vaccine. Perry's campaign told the Star-Telegram at the time that Perry agreed as long as there was a way for parents to opt-out their children out.

That summer, Perry's chief of staff Deirdre Delisi had been meeting with Merck lobbyists about Gardasil. In October, Merck's political action committee donated $5,000 to Perry's campaign the same day Delisi participated in another meeting with Merck officials. Further complicating Perry's position was that Mike Toomey, Perry's former chief of staff, was a Merck lobbyist.

The connections between Perry and the company, coincidental or not, added corruption allegations to critics' arsenal. Though Perry defended himself against the $5,000 donation during the debate, he has received a total of $28,500 from Merck since 2006 and the Republican Governors Association, which Perry has chaired, received $377,500 from the company, according to Texans for Public Justice.

"That usually defined [Perry's] motivation for just about everything," Bell said. "You only had to follow the short money trail."

Conservatives appalled

Perry's HPV order briefly upended Texas' political landscape. The Republican governor of Texas found himself drawing praise from Planned Parenthood chapters and the New York Times editorial board. Meanwhile, Perry's conservative base was appalled. Some viewed the order as a betrayal.

"A lot of us felt he was a real Republican, meaning that he believed in limited government," said Colleen Parro, who was head of the Republican National Coalition for Life, at the time. "And now he has made it the government's business of what is supposed to be the business of parents. Governor Perry is not the father of every little girl in this state."

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, a leader on health issues in Austin, led the charge in the Senate to void Perry's order.

"We were not on the same page on that issue, but no two people are going to agree 100 percent of the time," Nelson said this week. Three months after issuing the order, Perry admitted defeat while accusing lawmakers of putting politics before saving lives.

"Banning widespread access to a vaccine that can prevent cancer is short-sighted policy," Perry said at a press conference with three cervical cancer patients beside him.

But Perry isn't the only one on defense over vaccine issues.

Bachmann drew widespread condemnation for claiming on Fox News Monday that there are "dangerous consequences" to taking Gardasil, citing a woman who had told her that the vaccine made her daughter mentally retarded.

An anti-vaccine movement has flourished in recent years but has been discredited by scientists. Gardasil was tested on thousands of people around the world and no serious side effects were found, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Aman Batheja, 817-390-7695

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