Rick Perry cited health data about the high risk of cervical cancer among young women when he defended his decision to mandate sixth-graders to receive the HPV vaccine in 2007, but some critics saw ulterior motives in the Texas governor’s order to make small-government Texas the first state in the nation to require vaccination. After all, Perry had not consulted Republicans in the legislator before issuing the requirement early that February and had expressed no prior interest in expanding access to women’s health care — or doing much of anything to improve public health in the state.
And so, Perry’s detractors turned to his relationship with the vaccine manufacturer, Merck — which stood to profit from the order — and the company’s stealth campaign to push states to adopt the requirement. From the Associated Press’ 2007 account:
Merck is bankrolling efforts to pass laws in state legislatures across the country mandating it Gardasil vaccine for girls as young as 11 or 12. It doubled its lobbying budget in Texas and has funneled money through Women in Government, an advocacy group made up of female state legislators around the country. […]
Perry has several ties to Merck and Women in Government. One of the drug company’s three lobbyists in Texas is Mike Toomey, his former chief of staff. His current chief of staff’s mother-in-law, Texas Republican state Rep. Dianne White Delisi, is a state director for Women in Government. […]
Perry also received $6,000 from Merck’s political action committee during his re-election campaign.
Shorty after Perry issued the order on Feb. 2, 2007, the AP reported that “Perry’s chief of staff had met with key aides about the vaccine on October 16, the same day Merck’s political action committee” donated to the governor. Still, Perry dismissed all charges of impropriety. “When a company comes to me and says we have a cure for cancer, for me not to say, ‘Please come into my office and let’s hear your story for the people of the state of Texas, for young ladies who are dying of cancer,’ would be the height of irresponsibility,” the Republican governor said. “Whether or not they contributed to my campaign, I would suggest to you, are some of those weeds that we are trying to cut our way through.”
What made matters worse, however, was that Merck had “made headlines in 2004 for failing to disclose that its painkiller Vioxx raised the risk of cardiac arrest and stroke in patients” and so critics worried that the company’s new HPV vaccination was yet untested and could suffer from defect.
The opposition proved overwhelming and Perry quickly backed down from his requirement, allowing the executive order to be overturned by the legislature (only three of 181 lawmakers voted against the bill rescinding the requirement). But he didn’t go quietly, chastising lawmakers in his own party for misrepresenting his motives and intentions. “In the next year, more than a thousand women will likely be diagnosed with this insidious yet mostly preventable disease,” said Perry. “I challenge legislators to look these women in the eyes and tell them, ‘We could have prevented this disease for your daughters and granddaughters, but we just didn’t have the gumption to address all the misguided and misleading political rhetoric.'”