I want to strongly second what both Henry Miller and Adam Keiper argue below.
The means by which Rick Perry sought to add the HPV vaccine to the list of required vaccinations in Texas was certainly peculiar, and combined with his links to a Merck lobbyist it raises some questions that he should address more seriously than he has. And while the HPV vaccine is not an absolutely obvious candidate for mandatory vaccination (HPV and its very serious associated cancer risks are not, as Miller suggests, “childhood illnesses,” though I see no persuasive reason not to warmly welcome the opportunity to protect people from them as early as possible), adding it to the list of required vaccines, especially with a broad parental opt-out, strikes me as well within the bounds of reasonable public policy. A sensible, indeed essential, reticence about sending the wrong message to young girls does not seem to me to readily translate into an unwillingness to protect women (young and formerly young) from a deadly cancer. It’s hard to imagine that the risk of cervical cancer is what keeps even one young woman in America from premarital sex today, or that a lessening of that risk would at all diminish the ranks of those who choose to wait—especially if parents can easily opt out.
Virginia’s vaccination law, for instance, which mandates the HPV vaccine for 6th-grade girls but gives parents a no-questions-asked opportunity to pass on the shot, seems perfectly appropriate. In practical terms, it’s basically an opt-in policy: Parents have to take their daughters to the doctor to get vaccinated, and if they don’t want to they just send a signed form in to school. The only reason it’s called an opt-out and not an opt-in is that such a designation is required in order to have the vaccine covered by Medicaid and some private insurance. That approach is much like what Perry sought to do in Texas, but it was enacted through the regular legislative process, rather than rushed through by an awkward executive order.
Whatever you think about the mandate debate, though, there is no excuse for Michelle Bachmann’s preposterously ill-informed assertion about the risks of the vaccine. After the debate, Bachmann told Fox News that “there’s a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result. There are very dangerous consequences.”
That is beyond ridiculous, and it is profoundly irresponsible. There is no evidence to support any link between this (or any) vaccine and mental retardation. None. Baseless assertions to the contrary about various vaccines have for years been piling needless guilt upon the parents of children with autism and other disorders, and driving other parents away from vaccinating their children against diseases that could do them great harm. A presidential candidate should not be engaging in such harmful nonsense.
The rashness of Perry’s move to mandate the vaccine, and the at times excessive zeal of Merck’s campaign to see it mandated, have surely contributed to this frenzy. Some of us even saw it coming several years ago. But none of that excuses Bachmann’s reckless conspiracy mongering.