Texas Gov. Rick Perry is under fire for making a decision he now says is a mistake: pushing for mandatory vaccination of young girls to protect them from a virus that can cause cervical cancer. But the criticism of Perry misses the point.
The vaccine, Gardasil, is manufactured by Merck, a powerful drug company whose PAC has contributed to Perry and other politicians. A Perry rival for the GOP presidential nomination, Rep. Michele Bachmann, accused Perry of pushing for the vaccine to please a campaign contributor (which had also employed a former Perry aide as a lobbyist). Perry said he is offended that anyone could think he could be bought off with a $5,000 donation. And social conservatives don't think the vaccine should be injected on a mandatory basis to young girls because it will encourage them to have sex.
All of these arguments are specious. Now that we're in the 21st century, it's time we abandon the blanket condemnation of sex and give up on the idea that sex equals death. We should also acknowledge that telling young people that sex equals death is not going to stop them or anyone else from having sex. Making the argument that unprotected sex can lead to disease or unwanted pregnancy is an important message. So is the advice that sex is more emotionally complicated than a lot of young people understand, and that having sex at a young age is not wise. But the assumption that giving females a chance to avert cancer later in life will somehow usher them into a life of promiscuity is an insult to girls and women of all ages.
And as for Perry's perceived insult: he's offended that someone thinks he could be bought for a paltry five grand? Does that mean he wouldn't be insulted if someone thought he could be bought for a much higher sum? The Washington Post reports that Perry has closer financial ties to Merck than he let on, receiving $30,000 from the company since 2000, and benefiting in a less direct way from the $380,000 Merck gave to the Republican Governors Association since 2006 (Perry has been prominent in the group). But are all contributions necessarily a quid pro quo?
The real issue here is not promoting promiscuity or taking cash to carry a drug-maker's water. It's whether the government should be mandating a vaccine, even with a parental opt-out, for illnesses that are not communicable except through intimate contact. For some parents, it's a no-brainer; why not give a girl a better chance of avoiding cervical cancer? (The vaccine is not effective unless administered at a young age.) For other parents, the mandate (which Texas ended up not imposing) interferes with their medical decisions over their children. Those are both valid points of view. And the question of the role of government in public health is the issue here—not sex or campaign cash.