Discussing the HPV vaccine controversy in an interview after last night’s debate, Michele Bachmann told CNN’s John King that “The problem is, again, a little girl doesn’t get a do-over: once they have that vaccination in their body, once it causes its damage, that little girl doesn’t have a chance to go back.” This morning, Bachmann clarified her remarks on the Today show, saying that the HPV vaccine “can have very dangerous side effects,” including perhaps mental retardation, and that the vaccine “could potentially be a very dangerous drug.”
With these remarks, Representative Bachmann has gone too far — irresponsibly aligning herself with the paranoid anti-vaccine fringe that has garnered so much attention in recent years for its celebrity-hyped lies about the dangers of vaccines.
There are legitimate criticisms to make about HPV vaccination, and Representative Bachmann and Senator Santorum made some of them during the debate.
First, Governor Perry erred in using an executive order to mandate HPV vaccination rather than pursuing a legislative route. In several of the states where mandatory vaccination was raised in the legislature, it was defeated. Governor Perry has repeatedly said he regrets not pursuing a legislative route.
Second, one could reasonably argue that mandatory HPV vaccination is tantamount to conceding that children will engage in risky sexual behavior. This is the case made by most of the critics of HPV vaccination; it is comparable to the conservative arguments against mandatory sex ed in schools. While proponents of mandatory HPV vaccination and sex ed have argued that they are both essential matters of public health, opponents maintain that — notwithstanding opt-out provisions — they represent an improper government involvement in private sexual mores.
Third, the case could also be made that the vaccination mandate is an example of corporate welfare, or as Bachmann put it during last night’s debate, “crony capitalism.” At the very least, there is reason to be concerned about the revolving door between politics and the pharmaceutical industry. (This lobbying for HPV vaccination is still going on: You may have even seen the advertisements in newspapers as the industry has been pushing in recent months for the vaccination of school-age boys who, even though they obviously cannot get cervical cancer, can still carry human papillomavirus.)
Finally, as Jonah notes, one could argue that Governor Perry’s rhetoric in defense of his vaccination policy — “I am always going to err on the side of life” — opens the door to all manner of government overreach. Rick Perry is no Mike Bloomberg, but that is the sort of line that the New York mayor might trot out to justify some new dietary ban.
Those are all fair policy criticisms of mandatory HPV vaccination. But in making claims about the safety of the vaccines, Representative Bachmann has gone far, far off-point. All vaccines have the potential, no matter how small, to cause illness, adverse reactions, or side effects. But, as Henry Miller points out, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that either of the HPV vaccines now on the market, Merck’s Gardasil or GlaxoSmithKline’s Cervarix, has any of the dangerous effects that Bachmann describes.
It is right and proper that government requires, as a matter of public health, certain kinds of vaccines. Vaccination has saved millions of lives; it is unquestionably one of the greatest successes of modern medicine. Fortunately, the anti-vaccination movement has remained on the fringes of our public life. Its central claims about the dangers of vaccines — like the claim that vaccines have been responsible for the rising number of autism diagnoses — have been thoroughly, repeatedly, rigorously debunked. With her comments about the HPV vaccine in the past day, Representative Bachmann has associated herself with this irresponsible movement. She should run, not walk, to retract her remarks.
— Adam Keiper is the editor of The New Atlantis and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.