The Sex-Hating Hysteria Behind Republicans' HPV Vaccine Debate

Michele Bachmann seems to have struck gold at yesterday's Republican debate. She went after Rick "I Hate Cancer" Perry, again for mandating an HPV vaccine, and she hasn't stopped pushing it since. But as anyone who's followed this debate already knows, this is not about vaccine side effects, government mandates, or even lobbyist links. It's about sex.

To Perry's relative credit, he has never backed away from the mandate, just the autocratic way he went about achieving it. (He was later overruled by the legislature.) That's despite the fact that Michele Bachmann is ignoring the existence of a parental-opt out in the original policy, and using the most inflammatory language possible to whip up the social conservatives that might have been happy to switch allegiances to Perry. She did it in the MSNBC debate, and ramped up at the CNN the debate last night:

I'm a mom, and I'm a mom of three [daughters]. And to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong. That should never be done.

She might as well said that she didn't want the government ramming the vaccine down their throats, or pimping out innocent twelve-year-olds, or what have you.

Then, apparently realizing she could siphon off from the Ron Paul acolytes who think that the vaccine contains a government tracking device — and why not, maybe even grab some progressive alterna-health types who are already leery of vaccinations — she switched tacks. Right after the debate, she sent out an email with the subject "I'm Offended."

Then she went on Fox News and said, "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." She repeated the same claim on Today, in the clip above.

But the side-effects claim is a red herring. The CDC has been monitoring reports of adverse side effects but continues to recommend the vaccination; it reports that of about 35 million doses, 18,727 reports of adverse events were filed, only 8 percent of them deemed serious. That's about 1500 potentially serious cases out of 35 million people, except that even those haven't been shown to have a causal link, as in all such reports. (The CDC also notes that there have been 68 reports of deaths among Gardasil recipients, thirty two of which were confirmed, but "there was no unusual pattern or clustering to the deaths that would suggest that they were caused by the vaccine and some reports indicated a cause of death unrelated to vaccination."

And while all citizens of Texas could legitimately be concerned about lobbyists bossing Rick Perry around — his former chief of staff became a lobbyist for Merck, which was eager to get states to pass mandates before a generic messed up its market share, and he got some campaign contributions from them. (Over the years, more than the $5000 he mentioned in the debate, but not really enough to command a lot of attention, relatively speaking.) Still, this type of cronyism is rarely something "pro-business" Republicans have ever gotten authentically exercised about, and in this case, I'd argue the ends justified the slightly shady means.

In terms of intra-Republican attacks, this is throwing shit against the wall to see what sticks. But the true motivator remains the terror of girls having sex, somehow, someday.

Just listen to Rick Santorum, who was only too happy to chime in to suggest that there was no public health utility to vaccinating sixth grade girls against HPV, and then stuck in the word progressive for good measure: "Unless Texas has a very progressive way of communicating diseases in their school by way of their curriculum then there is no government purpose served for having little girls inoculated at the force and compulsion of the government." Progressive: Code word for sex-ed making all little girls whores?

The good ex-Senator does not appear to understand how vaccines work. The idea is to prevent the spread of disease before the population is significantly at risk, and as someone who got the Gardasil vaccine at age twenty-five, I wish it had come around earlier. Who believes in good faith that early intervention is telling eleven-year-old girls that now they can be as slutty as they want because their chance of contracting a virus that might lead to cervical cancer has been significantly lowered? Do eleven year old girls even know what a cervix is? Particularly in Texas, home of abstinence-only education? It's not like Gardasil makes pregnancy and the risk of sexually-transmitted diseases (or social disapprobation, or personal values, or what have you) magically disappear. No matter how much Bachmann scaremongers, in a few years, those girls will have their own ideas and desires about sex anyway. Clearly Bachmann prefers that they do so in a more punishing atmosphere.

When the chastity of "innocent" little girls — who may or may not grow up to have consensual sex, or who, the sad reality is, may or may not be raped sometime in their lifetimes, or may have a husband who cheats — is at stake, all of this goes out of the window. Which is why it makes a genius issue for Bachmann: The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza points out that the issue "is custom made for the kind of misinformed, conspiratorial, and damaging attacks that someone like Bachmann has made a career out of demagoguing." He concluded, "If Perry does not take control of the issue, it could threaten his candidacy." On the other hand, Rush Limbaugh thinks she's gone too far in claiming the mental retardation link. And the National Review's Corner blog, not normally known for such things, just ran a reasonable account by a former FDA official about why Bachmann is wrong, concluding that "Gardasil has one of the most favorable risk-benefit ratios of any pharmaceutical." The world may not be entirely screwed.

HPV, Perry, And Bachmann [New Yorker]
Earlier: Bachmann Attacks Perry Over HPV Vaccine

Image via Ed Uthman/Flickr.