DALLAS — Gov. Rick Perry says last week’s decision to make Texas the only state to require that sixth-grade girls be inoculated against a sexually transmitted virus linked to cervical cancer grew out of medical concerns, not political opportunism or favoritism.
The Perry mandate ordered the state’s Health and Human Services Commission to require Merck & Co.’s new Gardasil vaccine for girls entering the sixth grade in Texas in September 2008. The vaccine protects girls against strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes most cases of cervical cancer.
After three days of heated debate laced with charges of political irresponsibility and even suggestions that a former Perry chief of staff might benefit from the decision, the governor came back swinging yesterday, saying he would not change his order.
He specifically addressed the most oft-repeated charge against the measure, claims by social conservatives who have backed Mr. Perry that the vaccination would fuel the assumption that teenage sex was normal and permissible.
“Providing the HPV vaccine doesn’t promote sexual promiscuity any more than providing the hepatitis B vaccine promotes drug use,” Mr. Perry, a Republican, said in a prepared statement. “If the medical community developed a vaccine for lung cancer, would the same critics oppose it claiming it would encourage smoking?”
State Sen. Jane Nelson, Lewisville Republican and chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, asked Mr. Perry on Monday to rescind his order, saying “this needs closer examination.”
She said at a press conference in Austin that Mr. Perry’s decision “stunned” her and she wondered aloud what kind of precedent it might set. Mrs. Nelson said she would seek an opinion from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on whether the Perry move was legal.
“Most importantly, as a mother of four daughters,” Mrs. Nelson added, ” I want to make sure our daughters’ health is protected and parental rights are preserved.”
State Sen. Glenn Hegar, Katy Republican, vowed to file legislation to reverse the Perry order. Several other lawmakers publicly railed about the surprise move, which left in the dark the state’s top two legislators. Neither Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst nor House Speaker Tom Craddick was informed of the governor’s planned announcement.
Mr. Craddick said he didn’t have a position on the matter, but Mr. Dewhurst said he would have preferred a voluntary program.
“I don’t think government should ever presume to know better than parents what to do with children,” said the lieutenant governor, who added that he thought the vaccine “could play a critical role in preventing cervical cancer.”
Texas parents can opt out of the inoculations for their daughters, as they can with other such required vaccines.
Texas Eagle Forum President Cathie Adams charged that political ties between Merck and Mike Toomey, a former Perry chief of staff who now is a lobbyist for Merck, might have swayed the governor.
“This is ‘follow the money’ if I’ve ever seen it,” Mrs. Adams said.
Mr. Perry’s office said he had received only $6,000 in contributions from Merck’s political action committee in the past two years.