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Rick Perry's Gardasil Problem

By Tom Bevan - June 4, 2011

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In an ironic twist, Perry found an unlikely ally in the New York Times editorial page, which congratulated him on the decision. "Other states would be wise to follow the same path," the paper wrote. Perry was savvy enough to recognize that when a conservative Southern Republican's most prominent ally is the reliably liberal editorial board of The Times, he has some fences to mend. A week after Perry signed the executive order, he took to the opinion page of USA Today to defend his decision.

"Some are focused on the cause of this cancer, but I remain focused on the cure," Perry wrote. "This is a rare opportunity to act, and as a pro-life governor, I will always take the side of protecting life."

Perry's attempt to frame his action as both an urgent public health necessity and the work of a "pro-life" politician failed to dissuade those who felt he had shoved this vaccine down the throats of the public without a full airing of the potential benefits, costs and long-term health implications of the drug.

Roughly 60 state lawmakers called on Perry to rescind the order. He refused. Just six weeks after Perry put pen to paper, the Texas House rebuked him on March 14, 2007, passing HB 1098, overturning his executive order by a vote of 119-21. The Senate followed suit the following month by a vote of 30-1.

Realizing both chambers had large enough majorities to override a veto, Perry opted to let the bill become law without his signature. On May 8, the day the law went into effect, Perry held a press conference surrounded by women touched by cervical cancer. He bemoaned the tenor of a debate that he asserted had been "hijacked by politics and posturing," and blamed future cervical cancer deaths on those who opposed his mandate -- many of whom were fellow Republicans.

In a grand flourish, Perry thanked the small minority of legislators who sided with him: "They will never have to think twice about whether they did the right thing. No lost lives will occupy the confines of their conscience, sacrificed on the altar of political expediency."

In response, the sponsor of HB 1098, Republican state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, blasted Perry for "using cancer victims as his backdrop for an issue that he has grossly misjudged."

"Just because you don't want to offer up 165,000 11-year-old girls to be Merck's study group doesn't mean you don't care about women's health, doesn't mean you don't care about young girls," Bonnen added.

And, in fact, two years later the National Vaccine Information Center issued a report raising serious questions over the harmful side effects of the drug. A few months after that, an editorial on Gardasil in the Journal of the American Medical Association declared that "serious questions regarding the overall effectiveness of the vaccine" needed to be answered and that more long-term studies were called for.

In Texas, the battle over Rick Perry's decision to issue an executive order requiring preteen girls to be immunized with Gardasil is old news. But if he runs for president, the fight over his decision will be waged anew in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. With apologies to Tip O'Neill, when you run for president, all (local) politics are national.

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Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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