On 2 February, Texas became the first state in the nation to enact a mandatory vaccination scheme for human papilloma virus (HPV), the primary cause of cervical cancer. The vaccine, Gardasil, is produced by Merck. Although welcomed by many, this was a surprising development since it was brought about by an unusual executive order from conservative Republican governor Rick Perry.
The executive order requires all girls entering the sixth grade to undergo the series of vaccinations, although concerned parents are given the choice to opt out if they so desire. Not surprisingly, there was an uproar from conservatives (unconvincing arguments about mandatory vaccinations encouraging sex), and now Republican Dennis Bonnen has filed a bill (HB1098) to overturn the executive order. Debate on the bill will begin this Tuesday (13 March) in the Texas House. From the AP:
AUSTIN — Legislation that would override Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s executive order that schoolgirls receive a vaccine against the human papilloma virus is set for debate in the Texas House on Tuesday.
Perry issued the order Feb. 2 requiring girls entering sixth grade as of September 2008 to be vaccinated against HPV, which causes most cases of cervical cancer. That met with a firestorm of public protest and opposition from some conservative lawmakers.
Opponents said the order interfered with parental decisions, and some said the Legislature should decide whether the state will require the vaccine, not the governor.
The anti-mandate bill before the House next week was filed by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, a Republican from Angleton. At least 90 state representatives have signed on as co-sponsors of Bonnen’s bill. A similar measure is pending in the Senate.
The full House and Senate can start debating all bills next week. Until now, the two chambers have been limited to passing only bills declared emergencies by Perry.
Conservatives oppose the vaccine requirement because they believe it contradicts Texas’ abstinence-only sex education policies and strays too far into families’ lives. Others have balked at the $360 cost for the vaccine, called Gardasil, and questioned the vaccine’s efficacy and safety.
Perry says he wants to protect young girls from cancer.
This is an unfortunate development. Although I do not know how much support this bill has (probably quite a bit, considering the number of co-sponsors), it looks like the Texas legislature is on the verge of shooting down quite possibly the first progressive thing Rick Perry has done during his otherwise uninspiring tenure as governor. Preventative medicine suffers so often in our health care system, and it’s a shame that such a promising preventative measure for cervical cancer is facing these stumbling blocks.
Merck itself has come under fire for its aggressive campaign pushing the adoption of mandatory vaccination policies, which many saw as premature since Gardasil was only approved for use in June 2006. Merck later announced in February of this year that it would end this campaign.
Skepticism is warranted, however, in addressing the question of why Rick Perry issues his executive order. Here’s The Economist’s (subscription required) take:
Why did Mr Perry do it? Some sneerers have noted that his former chief of staff is now a lobbyist for Merck. Others think that the wily governor is distancing himself from his conservative base so that he can make a plausible vice-presidential candidate in 2008. But there is another explanation: that he had the courage to make a politically difficult but sound policy decision. As he said this week: “If the medical community developed a vaccine for lung cancer,” he asked, “would the same critics oppose it, claiming it would encourage smoking?”
I’m not so starry-eyed as The Economist here, and based on Perry’s history, I have trouble believing that there was a humanitarian motivation behind all of this. I don’t doubt the significance of the Mike Toomey (Perry’s former chief of staff) connection or the power of Merck’s lobbying machine. Despite it’s dubious origins, though, this executive order has the potential to do a lot of good for Texans, and hopefully the legislature will do the right thing and let it stand.