The GOP Fight Over the HPV Vaccine

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

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.”


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Comments [52]

Politicians need to learn how to present these issues in terms of choices that they want the American public to make. Perry's problem and Bachman's problem is that they don't know how to frame the issue or the question that Americans need to answer for themselves. It's not because they are right or wrong, it's because they are ignorant and don't know how to think.

Sep. 14 2011 08:45 PM

@patti, actually you not vaccinating your child DOES put us all at risk, because vaccinations are not full proof. Why, I don't know, perhaps because viruses mutate. Vaccinations have been successful because up until recently everyone got them so the illnesses they protected us from almost disappeared. So, yes, I still say I do not want your unvaccinated child sitting next to mine everyday in class.

Sep. 14 2011 04:52 PM
Annie from New York City

It is unconstitutional for a vaccine to be mandated, especially one for a sexually transmitted disease, and one that has been shown to cause severe neurological damage. Where are all the lawyers to fight this outrage? The vaccine companies have no liability, the Dept of Health can overide a medical exemption from a child's doctor, and parents/schools are being intimidated and forced to inject something that can be potentially deadly into their children's bloodstreams. Outrageous. Michelle Bachman is correct. I think she meant neurological damage, not mental retardation. These are our precious children and the government is forcing us to harm them. It should be our choice for our children.

Sep. 14 2011 02:22 PM


When did becoming a parent make you an expert on everything? When did it become logical that giving birth to a child makes you a scientist or a physician? I mean come should a teenage mother be the one that determines what vaccines if any her child should receive? You wrote come on be logical but I have to ask the same of you.

Sep. 14 2011 02:02 PM
Edward from NJ

@patti, No vaccine is 100% effective in all people and some people with certain disorders simply can't have vaccines. Given that, you can still protect everyone through herd immunity. If one person opts-out, that's not a problem. They're protected by the population's immunity. When a certain percentage of the population decides to go without a vaccine, you get a reservoir where the disease can take hold and spread to members of the vaccinated population who didn't get 100% immunity from the vaccine.

So, yes, your personal decision doesn't effect me or my children, but if there are enough people who make that same choice, then it does.

Sep. 14 2011 11:59 AM

Edward fron NJ, you're right - in theory. In reality it's a never ending battle to get my insurance company to cover anything.

Sep. 14 2011 11:41 AM

So, for all of you who are saying that "those of you who opt out of vaccines should not be in public life" (and the like)...really?? think about it. if you are vaccinated, than doesn't that mean you will be protected from the disease (if it were to all of a sudden break out due to these "irresponsible" or "wingnuts")?

As a mom, i detest the fact that I know longer have a choice as to what is medically best for my children. Yes, the polio vaccine may be effective (and arguable harmless?); but at this point there is a vaccine for EVERYTHING. This has the potential to harm our children in other ways. As parents we should have the right to decide.

If you are vaccinated, than my choice isn't affecting you.

Sep. 14 2011 11:32 AM
Edward from NJ

@Jean222, if the vaccine were mandated, your insurance would have to cover it. Since it's optional, you have to go out-of-pocket.

Sep. 14 2011 11:15 AM

I took my daughter for this vaccine and found out it costs $130.00 for each dose, with 3 doses required in 6 months ($130.00 x 3 = $390.00) plus the cost of a doctor's appointment each time ($75.00 x 3 = $225.00) for a total of $615.00 per individual girl. I understand the many families will get help with these costs through Medicaid, but what about families who are not eligible? Our insurance didn't cover it, and this is yet another example of government indifference to those of us who are neither rich nor poor. If this vaccine is so essential, why can't the government scrutinize Merck's profit and squeeze them to drop the price? They should buy the vaccine in bulk and offer to administer it free through the school nurses. If they won't and still insist on requiring it then they should think about making it 100% tax deductible.

Sep. 14 2011 11:11 AM
gary from queens

to the fans of the polio vaccine:

It was based on statistical and diagnostic fraud:

There was no virus confirmation in the 1950s. And there is just as much paralysis today as there was 60 yrs ago. We're just slapping different names to the illnesses today

Sep. 14 2011 11:03 AM
gary from queens

For the dumdums who see a parallel from abortion to vaccination---you miss the point about "choice."

The conflicting interests in abortion are between the interests of the mom and the interests of the fetus----not the republican party!!

With vaccination, the interests are between the mother (the moral ethic) and the society (the utilitarian ethic).

Sep. 14 2011 10:52 AM
Arnold from Manhattan

Most of the advocates of vaccination programs, talk as if it was safe.
The Federal Government paid out over 145 million dollars in Fiscal year 2011 to families of injured and survivors of dead children. Under the 1986 law, the vaccine manufacturers are no longer liable for the damages from vaccines and the government compensates the injured family in exchange. Unfortunately, there are no SO MANY claims of injury, the government is getting stricter and stricter to deny parents claims but these huge numbers are an official record. See

Sep. 14 2011 10:52 AM
rose-ellen from jackson hts.

What Bachmann said was valid but that she fails to extend her objection to all vaccines reveals she is hung up on teen sexuality. That the media failed to go there- every objection to this policy and vaccine could apply to all vaccines-shows the media is complicit with government in pushing vaccines on us. Perrys' policy shows how gullable and easily manipulated he was by the medical/pharmaceutical /pro vaccine/ Bill Gates ./government propaganda . Another gullible politician susceptible to fear mongering buzz words[cancer, women, saving lives etc] .Indoctinated to ignore and dismiss the suffering of women and children and even deaths resulting from vaccines themselves. We don't need more easily led and easily manipulated politicians!

Sep. 14 2011 10:45 AM

Mr. Leherer:

(This, I think, makes the consideration somewhat multidimensional.)

Sep. 14 2011 10:44 AM
gary from queens

To the commenters who raised the issue of herd immunity: the theory is flawed. That makes those who vaccinate for that reason "sheeple" in more ways than one.

Sep. 14 2011 10:39 AM

The HPV vaccine should be mandatory for all. There are no symptoms or signs for men and boys who are carriers. This is dangerous even for those who think they practicing safe intercourse by using condoms for the actual sex act. It is possible for HPV to be contracted through lesser sexual acts like genital to genital contact or mouth to genital contact.

Prevention of cervical cancer should not be tied into a moral debate. A public health vaccine is put in place to keep the majority of the population healthy. When living in such a large society, it only makes sense to prevent disease.

Sep. 14 2011 10:39 AM

Mr. Leherer:

Are you going to be interviewing Mr. Lopate on this topic?
He has some very appropriate and cogent thoughts on this public health issue.
Or are you avoiding discussion of this topic when you meet him in the cafeteria?

Sep. 14 2011 10:38 AM
Jennifer Heintzman from Pleasantville NY

It would be helpful for those politicians who choose to engage in the debate about HPV vaccine to do a bit of homework. The HPV vaccine was produced and marketed by Merck Pharmaceuticals at the time when they were facing a huge lawsuit due to Vioxx deaths. The vaccine was intended to offset losses due to the Vioxx fiasco. It was marketed in a way that disguised the real risk to women - in the US papilloma virus related to cervical cancer claims sadly, but only, 2700 lives per annum. It is not the rampant health issue Merck would have us believe. It is a serious issue in second and third world countries, however, but not in the US. The population most at risk is a non-caucasian, lower socio-economic group that engages in unprotected sex with multiple partners. Those facts never get presented to parents who are bombarded and guilted by incessant HPV ads on television, and by marketing materials at the pediatricians office. The vaccine has not undergone long term testing, and certainly has not undergone longterm testing with pre-pubescent developing girls. These should be the real concerns as the debate goes forward.

Sep. 14 2011 10:38 AM
catherine amendolara

My gynocologist recommended that my teenage son be vaccinated, as he can be a carrier.

Sep. 14 2011 10:35 AM
Lloyd from Manhattan

I love these hypocrites who say that our bodies should be free of government interference, then vociferously ban the right to choose an abortion.

Sep. 14 2011 10:33 AM

HPV also causes oral cancer I believe. Males as well should get the vaccine.

Sep. 14 2011 10:33 AM
damian o'hara

what about hpv being linked to oral cancer in men?

Sep. 14 2011 10:33 AM
Shoniqua from Brooklyn

Why is it up to Brian to editorialize why he thinks is good public heath policy. The pharmaceutical industry lobbied hard even in NY to get their product mandatory for all even though it affects a small portion of the population and is not something that would create an outbreak or is communicable under normal circumstances.

Sep. 14 2011 10:33 AM

Glork: are any of the links you get from that search to scientifically credible sources?

Sep. 14 2011 10:33 AM
cec from brooklyn, ny

Mr Lizza, I am shocked at your casual comment that "there is no proof whatsoever" that there may be any side effects besides redness and itching.

Please research into the HPV vaccine effects in the U.K. The govt. put a halt on the vaccines at one point due to concerns regarding side effects.

This is about money, not the health of the public. I applaud Ms. Bachmann for highlighting the revolving door of big pharma/govt.

Sep. 14 2011 10:32 AM
rk from NYC

The mandatory vaccinations also provide herd immunity; very important for young babies whose immune systems are not developed enough to receive vaccines yet and are therefore vulnerable.

Just look at California, where kids have died as a result of communities being vaccine averse.

Sep. 14 2011 10:32 AM

I have to question how prejudice Perry is agaisnt women that he is insisting that all 12 year old girls get this vaccine. Why shoudn't boys get it too? Then women would be doubly protected. Also, to the caller who thinks its okay to send his unvaccinated child to public school. I do not want your child getting my child sick, so if you don't want to protect your child from illness, fine, but yes, he/she should NOT be allowed in school. The rest of us should not pay the price for your decision.

Sep. 14 2011 10:32 AM
carolita from nyc

Women and girls are being forcibly injected with more than just vaccines. They are often being molested and raped by close members of their family. So anyone basing their argument against the vaccine on the idea that it would encourage premarital sex is being willfully blind to that fact.

However, yes, I'd love to see a vaccine for boys instead of girls for once.

Sep. 14 2011 10:31 AM
rk from NYC

The mandatory vaccinations also provide herd immunity; very important for young babies whose immune systems are not developed enough to receive vaccines yet and are therefore vulnerable.

Just look at California, where kids have died as a result of communities being vaccine averse.

Sep. 14 2011 10:31 AM

Australia does vaccinate young men for HPV. The scientist who developed the strains had her sons immunized as the first in Australia.

Sep. 14 2011 10:31 AM
Lori from Montclair, NJ

sorry, "studies" are paid for

Sep. 14 2011 10:30 AM
M. Walter from Tribeca

Opt out should be a choice, but should these same people receive public moneys (Medicare/Medicaid) to cover their medical expenses if they do get cervical cancer from HPV?

Sep. 14 2011 10:30 AM

As for your caller saying he should have a right to say whether or not his child gets protected from polio: I should have the right to say that I do not want his child to become a potential vector for spreading polio.

Sep. 14 2011 10:30 AM

I have to wonder why Perry would be so pro-HPV vaccine when he adamantly opposes sex education and believes in abstinence. As he has stated he has personal experience that abstinence works. He has two children. Does anyone believe this man has only had sex 2,3,4 times? Money is at the bottom of Perry's pro-HPV vaccine stance. Guarantee.

Sep. 14 2011 10:30 AM
Glork from Glen Ridge NJ

Google in "gardasil deaths". Neither my sons or daughters will take the risk for a vaccination that previous generations did without. Check out the economic demographics on this one- Scarsdale, Upper Montclair and the Manhattan private school crowds aren't buying this one either.

Sep. 14 2011 10:29 AM
Leonore Tiefer from stuytown

I don't agree that the science is open and shut about this. There were quite a few serious and substantial science-based articles about this after the Perry decision. And, yes, to your point now, the Boston Women's Health Collective and the National Women's Health Campaign have BOTH objected to HPV. And Lizza, married to a pro-vaccine MD, should NOT be the only spokesperson.

Sep. 14 2011 10:29 AM
Ken from Little Neck

Congratulations, caller, for wanting to reintroduce polio into the American population. Vaccinations have been the most wildly successful public health policy ever in this country - why are we even talking about this?

Sep. 14 2011 10:29 AM
DMarie from Queens

That first caller is a wingnut! If you want to opt out of polio vaccines, you should opt out of our society, go live by yourself in the middle-of-nowhere, and not put the rest of us reasonable people in danger.

Sep. 14 2011 10:29 AM
Inquisigal from Brooklyn

I love that this male caller is saying he "wants to have the choice" in matters of governing the medical needs of his children's bodies.

Does the GOP not see the territory they're suddenly thrusting themselves into?

Sep. 14 2011 10:29 AM
Pat from Bk

My sister bought her 13year daughter in for a stand checkup when the doctor kicked her out of the examine room after she protested the vaccine. While my sister was out ouf the room the injected a 13 yr with this vaccine. What knowledge does a 13 year know about the downfalls and repercussions.

Sep. 14 2011 10:29 AM
Lori from Montclair, NJ

I can't believe that I agree with something that Bachman has said but, yes, the mandatory vaccine was overreaching. There was plenty of opposition at the time and not by conservatives but rather feminists and other interested parties.

IS there long term data on the effects of this vaccine? It hasn't been around long enough nor been tested for long term impact. Are they studying these girls for long term impact on fertility, other cancers, etc.? We all know that the drug approval process is pathetic and the stories are mostly paid for by the manufacturers themselves.

Just saying....

Sep. 14 2011 10:28 AM
DarkSymbolist from NYC!

Why does the media continue to prop up this moron Bachmann. She's a complete idiot on the level of Palin. And possibly more dangerous.

Will the MCM state how irresponsible and innaccurate her stupid comments are or will they portray her "point of view" as something valid?

Sep. 14 2011 10:26 AM
gary from queens

I would recommend all open minded listeners read my articles on vaccination and disease:

Sep. 14 2011 10:25 AM
Sheldon from crown heights

Michelle Bachmann's link to mental retardation may be off but she was spot on on Perry's true reason for enforcing the vaccination.

When has a firebrand republican ever done anything for altruistic reasons. Her hint that it was done because of cronyism, (Merck) hits home.

Sep. 14 2011 10:25 AM

What? Merck can't afford to buy the entire TX legie?

Sep. 14 2011 10:25 AM
Edward from NJ

If you're going to mandate an HPV vaccine, it should be for both boys and girls. By only immunizing girls, you sacrifice herd immunity. You simply can't wipe out a disease with 50% of the population viable as carriers.

Sep. 14 2011 10:25 AM

What? Merck can't afford to buy the entire TX legie?

Sep. 14 2011 10:22 AM
Brenda from NYC

All ridiculous politicking aside, can we please talk about gender-blind HPV vaccines? Not only are boys/men the ones giving the girls/women the virus, and therefore should be vaccinated. Additionally, we could ease some of the sexual undertones of the vaccine by issuing it to all children.

Sep. 14 2011 10:20 AM
gary from queens

Bachmann was quoting exactly what a parent told her. "mental retardation" was the term the parent had used.

I'm sure the parent meant to say that her daughter developed a "neurological disorder" following the gardasil shot.

Let's not listen to the MEDICAL assessments of pols. any pols. As it is, most can barely get the non medical public policy issues right. (dems ot repubs)

Sep. 14 2011 10:12 AM
JT from LI

I wonder what Bachmann and company would say to the women in the next generation that get cervical cancer. Probably something like, "I hope you have insurance because our perfect Christian society isn't going to help you."

Sep. 14 2011 10:10 AM

"science bad" said the GOP

Sep. 14 2011 09:35 AM

Michele Bachmann took the 2012 presidential campaign to a new low with her insane and idiotic claim that the HPV vaccine may cause mental retardation. She's a disgrace to Minnesota, the Republican Party, and the Congress. It's time for the Republican Party to join the 21st century and purge its ranks of anti-science buffoons like Bachmann.

Sep. 14 2011 08:03 AM

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