The GOP Fight Over the HPV Vaccine

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Washington correspondent for the New Yorker magazine Ryan Lizza discusses the politics of the GOP divide over the HPV vaccine.

With the United States still tangled in decade-long war in two countries, the economy a mess, and unemployment and foreclosures still unsustainably high, why wouldn’t a vaccine for the human papillomavirus (HPV) become a big issue among Republican contenders for president?

In 2007 now-republican-contender and Texas Governor Rick Perry issued a requirement that all Texas girls entering sixth grade receive a vaccine that would protect them form the strain of HPV that can lead to cervical cancer. Critics, most notably Michele Bachmann, are slamming the action as government overreach, and questioning Perry’s financial connection to the vaccine manufacturer.

For his part, Perry says if he had to do it over again he would have done it through the legislature rather than by executive order, but Lizza said such a bill would never have passed the legislature.

They were outraged over the policy, not just the fact that the governor did it.

Until he entered the candidacy for president Perry has stood by his decisions, saying that the research is sound and it has been successful in reducing cancer rates. It’s only now as a candidate that he is backing off somewhat from his earlier positions, and calling it a mistake.

It’s a very important issue to evangelical conservatives, who believe that a vaccine against a disease caused by a sexually transmitted infection like HPV in some way encourages premarital sex, so the opposition to this vaccine is only partly about government interference and more about premarital sex.

Bachmann herself illustrated that concern, referring to “innocent little twelve year old girls being forced to have a government injection” and focusing on the possibility of a dangerous reaction to the vaccine.

Lizza called Bachmann’s approach “incredibly irresponsible."

She’s reported that someone told her that after getting this vaccine their child became, in this person’s words, Michele Bachmann said, mentally retarded… She said this on the Today Show, on Fox News with millions of people watching, and there is absolutely no scientific evidence whatsoever that this vaccine causes any side effects but some itching or redness in the area of the injection.

Lizza pointed out one could use this tactic to raise concerns about any vaccine.

Is she against the [government-required] polio vaccine? Did she vaccinate her own children? I’m sure she did.

Perry knew this would be an issue for religious conservatives, and provided an opt-out provision for parent who had a conscientious objection to the injection. Candidate Rick Santorum took issue with this as well in the first debate, saying he would prefer to see an “opt-in” provision, and Lizza agrees that that is a fair policy debate, though points out from a public policy perspective an “opt-out” provision gets greater numbers of the population vaccinated.

But who would have thought this would be the big issue in the Republican primaries?

Considering, Lizza said, “how irresponsible Bachmann has been” in attacking Perry, this issue could become a real threat to Perry’s campaign. It was the religious conservatives who were early supporters of Bachmann that have been wooed over by Perry’s evangelical style that will be most likely to respond to this sort of attack.

She could be successful in using this to drive a wedge into that electorate and pull some of those people back to her.

The campaign donation issue is another angle that Bachmann is pursuing in her criticism of Perry. In the debate she brought up that Perry’s former chief-of-staff was the chief lobbyist for the company that produces the vaccine, and the company itself donated thousands to Perry’s campaign for governor.

Bachmann has got a case here… there is a connection between campaign donations and a former chief of staff who was a lobbyist for Merck. Merck, the maker of the HPV vaccines, was heavily lobbying stat legislators to do mandatory vaccination program.

On the other hand, Lizza said, the public health merits are still sound, whether the program “originated out of campaign finance shenanigans or not.”