Texas Gov. Rick Perry is getting hammered because he signed an order requiring that sixth-graders be vaccinated against the HPV virus in 2007. Perhaps the most toxic mix in GOP presidential politics is the combination of sex, power and mandates.
All three elements play a role in this controversy.
HPV is a sexually transmitted disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "HPV is so common that at least 50 percent of sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives." Most people who have it don't know they have it, and their immune systems clear HPV naturally. For some, sadly, HPV can cause cervical cancer and other forms of cancer.
If HPV were not sexually transmitted, no doubt most Americans would support a vaccine to eradicate a scary health threat. But it is sexual. Experts suggest that doctors administer the vaccine before children become sexually active.
I have sympathy with parents who don't trust the school system, are sick of being told how to raise their children and want to shield their kids from hyper-sexualized messages.
But, frankly, parents ought to be more worried about the health of their kids when they grow up. ?In last week's GOP presidential debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann played to parents' fears when she accused Perry of signing an order "to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection." The image is almost pornographic.
Bachmann compounded her mistake when she told NBC's "Today'' show that she had met an unnamed mother who told her that after her daughter was vaccinated, she suffered from "mental retardation."
For Bachmann, that was enough proof to smear an opponent -- and a vaccine.
At the debate, Perry responded that his goal was "to stop a cancer"; said that parents were, of course, free to opt out; and said, "I will tell you that I made a mistake by not going to the Legislature first."
On that score, Perry was far too kind to himself. In mandating the vaccine in an executive order, Perry doomed any chance of success. His former chief of staff was a lobbyist for Merck, the manufacturer of the Gardasil vaccine. According to Texans for Public Justice, Merck gave Perry's campaign $28,500 -- not the $5,000 he claimed -- from January 2006 until June 2011, as well as $377,500 to the Republican Governors Association, which he chaired.
Critics have noted that at Gardasil's price of $360 per child, there might be better uses for those health dollars. ?The FDA had approved the vaccine only a year before. What about potential side effects? There remain questions as to whether Gardasil will work when adolescents hit adulthood -- an argument in favor of delaying administration until children are older.
No surprise, the Texas Legislature overturned Perry's order. ?It is Perry's great misfortune that the Gardasil story emerged in the midst of the Obama administration's Solyndra scandal. The now-filing-for-bankruptcy Solyndra was the first firm to win an Obama administration Department of Energy loan, to the tune of $528 million. Texas would have been the first state to mandate the vaccine. Do I smell the whiff of, as Bachmann put it, "crony capitalism?" Yes, I do.
The Beltway take on Perry's situation is that it is difficult for him to hit former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for Romneycare's "individual mandate" when Perry signed an order mandating an HPV vaccine.
But, as the Atlantic's Megan McArdle pointed out, vaccines are mandatory for a reason: Their primary purpose "is not necessarily to protect the vaccinated individual" but to protect others and hopefully eradicate disease. "When vaccination rates fall below 80 percent or so, you create 'reservoirs' of disease that can spread to vulnerable people."
In his book "Fed Up," Perry boasts about America's role in medical innovations, including the polio vaccine and measles vaccine.
So, for the record, Perry is not anti-vaccine. ?As for Bachmann, she called Perry's executive order "a violation of a liberty interest." I should hope that view would not hold in the face of a potential polio epidemic.
Now, Perry's order was a heavy-handed use of the executive order. His relations with Merck appeared far too cozy. Also, Perry rushed the deal before the public had reason to trust that a mandatory regime would come without scary unintended consequences.
But in the end, this is all about sex.