Photo: The Response
For years, Gov. Rick Perry has taken flak for his 2007 attempt to require girls to be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus, the most commonly sexually transmitted disease and the principal cause of cervical cancer. At the risk of angering fellow conservatives, Perry has always insisted he did the right thing.That unapologetic approach changed this weekend.
A few hours after unveiling his campaign for president, Perry began walking back from one of the most controversial decisions of his more-than-10-year reign as Texas governor. Speaking to voters at a backyard party in New Hampshire, Perry said he was ill-informed when he issued his executive order, in February 2007, mandating the HPV vaccine for all girls entering sixth grade, unless their parents completed a conscientious-objection affidavit form. The vaccine, Merck & Co.’s Gardasil, would have protected against the forms of HPV that cause about 70 per cent of all cervical cancer, according to the federal centres for Disease Control.
“I signed an executive order that allowed for an opt-out, but the fact of the matter is that I didn’t do my research well enough to understand that we needed to have a substantial conversation with our citizenry,” Perry said at the Manchester, N.H., event in response to an audience question about the HPV controversy, according to ABC News’ The Note. “But here’s what I learned: When you get too far out in front of the parade, they will let you know, and that’s exactly what our Legislature did, and I saluted it and I said, ‘Roger that, I hear you loud and clear.’ And they didn’t want to do it and we don’t, so enough said.”
Instead of making the vaccine mandatory, “what we should of done was a program that frankly allowed them to opt in or some type of program like that,” Perry told the New Hampshire gathering.
With Perry’s declaration Saturday that he is entering the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, his lengthy record — Perry has been an elected official for almost 26 years — will come under intense new scrutiny. As the longest-serving governor in the country and the longest ever in Texas, Perry has a substantial history of political activity and has taken positions on a host of potentially controversial issues.
The new comments about the HPV decision amount to an acknowledgment that Perry has to deal early with controversies that could otherwise dog him in his primary fight against U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party darling who is running strong in first-test Iowa, and Mitt Romney, a well-funded candidate with strong establishment backing and the ex-governor of New Hampshire’s neighbour, Massachusetts.
In recent weeks Perry has also sought to clarify his 10th Amendment-friendly statements on other hot-button issues. A few weeks before jumping into the race, Perry said in Aspen, Colo., that gay marriage should be left up to the individual states. Gay marriage in New York?
The statements prompted criticism among Christian conservatives. Perry also took a pounding from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a struggling GOP presidential candidate and social conservative, who criticised his laissez-faire approach. Perry has since begun stressing the need for federal constitutional bans on both gay marriage and abortion.
The governor had come under sharp criticism immediately after issuing the executive order on Feb. 2, 2007, to make the HPV vaccine mandatory. The conservative Eagle Forum and top Republicans in the Legislature were caught off guard and, in the words of one of them, “stunned” after Perry used an executive order to make the vaccine mandatory. Many lawmakers accused the governor of usurping parental rights and said the vaccine would encourage girls to be sexually promiscuous. At the time, Perry rejected their arguments.
“Providing the HPV vaccine doesn’t promote sexual promiscuity any more than the hepatitis B vaccine promotes drug use,” Perry said. “If the medical community developed a vaccine for lung cancer, would the same critics oppose it, claiming it would encourage smoking?”
Perry was also dogged by accusations that he was close to Merck, at the time the sole manufacturer of the vaccine. Mike Toomey, his former chief of staff and longtime adviser, was reported to be one of Merck’s three lobbyists in Texas. Merck’s political action committee donated $6,000 to Perry’s re-election campaign. Perry said the donations, small in the relative scheme of big-money Texas politics, had no influence on his decision.
In short order, the Legislature overwhelmingly overturned the decree. Acknowledging he did not have the votes to sustain a veto of the legislation, Perry announced he would allow it to become law without his signature. But he sharply criticised the Legislature.
“In the next year, more than a thousand women will likely be diagnosed with this insidious yet mostly preventable disease,” Perry said at a May 9, 2007, news conference, surrounded by women who had been affected by HPV, including one who he said had been infected by a rapist. “I challenge legislators to look these women in the eyes and tell them, ‘We could have prevented this disease for your daughters and granddaughters, but we just didn’t have the gumption to address all the misguided and misleading political rhetoric.'”
Until now, Perry never yielded to opponents who said he should have handled the issue differently rather than through a unilateral executive order. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison tried to make it an issue in her gubernatorial campaign to unseat him in 2010. In a January 2010 debate, Perry defended his decision to issue the executive order. It was not a mistake — “no sir, not from my position,” he said. “I stand proudly by my pro-life position.”
Later, in a September 2010 interview after an East Texas gubernatorial campaign swing, Perry was still sticking to his guns that his decision to issue the executive order was the right thing to do.
“Let me tell you why it wasn’t a bad idea: Even though that was the result I was looking for, and that becoming the standard procedure for protecting young women against this very heinous deadly dreadful disease, it caused a national debate,” Perry said. “I knew I was going to take a political hit … at the end of the day, I did what was right from my perspective, and I did something that saved people’s lives and, you know, that’s a big deal.”
State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, now the Democratic leader in the House, had found herself in rare agreement with the governor when he issued his 2007 executive order. On Sunday, she said this about Perry’s statement in New Hampshire: “Rick Perry initially did the right thing for women’s health with regards to an important vaccine against cervical cancer, and he has flip-flopped, cowering to the Republican primary base.”
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