Has Rick Perry Neutralized the Gardasil Controversy?


Slate's Dave Weigel notes that Texas Gov. Rick Perry's position on his 2007 executive order mandating vaccination of 10-to-12-old girls against HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer, has softened since his 2010 re-election campaign. Last year, facing primary challengers who hammered him on the issue, Perry stood his ground, saying the executive order was the right thing to do. At Monday's presidential debate, by contrast, Perry was contrite:

Wolf Blitzer: Governor Perry, as you well know, you signed an executive order requiring little girls 11 and 12-year-old girls to get a vaccine to deal with a sexually transmitted disease that could lead to cervical cancer. Was that a mistake?

Rick Perry: It was. And indeed, if I had it to do over again, I would have done it differently. I would have gone to the legislature, worked with them. But what was driving me was, obviously, making a difference about young people's lives.

Cervical cancer is a horrible way to die. And I happen to think that what we were trying to do was to clearly send a message that we're going to give moms and dads the opportunity to make that decision with parental opt-out.

Parental rights are very important in state of Texas. We do it on a long list of vaccines that are made, but on that particular issue, I will tell you that I made a mistake by not going to the legislature first. 

As Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, noted, Perry still did not disavow the policy of requiring parents to opt out of the vaccination rather than opt in:

I think we need to hear what Governor Perry's saying. He's saying that his policy was right. He believes that what he did was right. He thinks he went about it the wrong way. 

I believe your policy is wrong….Ladies and gentlemen, why do we inoculate people with vaccines in public schools? Because we're afraid of those diseases being communicable between people at school. And therefore, to protect the rest of the people at school, we have vaccinations to protect those children. 

Unless Texas has a very progressive way of communicating diseases in their school by way of their curriculum, then there is no government purpose served for having little girls inoculated at the force and compulsion of the government. This is big government run amok. It is bad policy, and it should not have been done. 

God help me, but I agree with Santorum. The issue here is similar to the one raised by mandatory vaccination of children against hepatitis B, which can be transmitted through sex or needle sharing but does not spread through casual contact and does not pose a threat to the general public. One needn't accept any of the urban legends about the hazards of vaccines to believe this sort of decision should be left to parents.

Yet Weigel argues that Perry has "smoothed over the social-conservative panic":

Before launching his campaign he met with influential movement leaders, answering their questions with the same two-step he gave in Tampa: I was mostly right, but I shouldn't have made the vaccine mandatory. That's significantly softer than his original answer to questions like this.

Weigel says the perception that Perry's executive order was a favor to Merck, which makes the anti-HPV vaccine Gardasil, remains a threat. The company employed Mark Toomey, Perry's former chief of staff, as a lobbyist, and its political action committee has donated $29,500 to his election campaigns in the last 10 years (almost six times the $5,000 Perry claimed during the debate). The coziness with Merck fits a broader portrait of Perry as a crony capitalist that belies his image as a free-market conservative.