National Partnership for Women & Families

In the News

Rep. Bachmann Draws Backlash After Broadened Attacks on HPV Vaccine

Rep. Bachmann Draws Backlash After Broadened Attacks on HPV Vaccine

September 14, 2011 — While continuing to assail Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) over his executive order mandating the human papillomavirus vaccine for pre-teen girls, Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) on Tuesday set off criticism from the medical community and even some fellow conservatives by claiming that vaccine could lead to intellectual disabilities, the New York Times reports.

During Monday's presidential candidate debate, Bachmann and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) said Perry infringed on parents' rights when he ordered sixth grade girls in Texas to receive the vaccine. Bachmann broadened that attack in a Tuesday appearance on NBC's "Today" show, saying that after the debate, a woman told her that her daughter developed "mental retardation" after being vaccinated against HPV (Gabriel/Grady, New York Times, 9/13).

Bachmann said, "She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection. And she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. The mother was crying when she came up to me last night. I didn't know who she was before the debate. This is the very real concern and people have to draw their own conclusions" (Melnick, "Healthland," Time, 9/13). Bachmann also told the story on Fox News, adding, "There are very dangerous consequences" to the vaccine.

Bachmann also accused Perry of "crony capitalism" on the grounds that his former chief of staff, Mike Toomey, worked as a lobbyist for Merck, the vaccine's manufacturer (Weiner, "The Fix," Washington Post, 9/13). Sarah Palin, who has used the phrase "crony capitalism" before, echoed Bachmann's comment. The executive order "was an illustration or a bit of evidence of some crony capitalism," Palin said (Wheaton, "The Caucus," New York Times, 9/13). Palin -- who has not said whether she will seek the GOP presidential nomination -- added, "I want all of our GOP candidates to take the opportunity to kill corporate capitalism that is leading to this cronyism, which is ruining our economy" (Yadron [1], "Washington Wire," Wall Street Journal, 9/13).

Conservative Response

Not all conservatives were supportive of Bachmann's claims, and some said she went too far by linking the vaccine with intellectual disabilities without presenting any evidence. According to the "The Fix," Bachmann's tendency to overreach on issues could undermine her attacks on Perry.

On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh said, "Bachmann might have blown it, she might have jumped the shark. There's no evidence that the vaccine causes mental retardation." The Weekly Standard's John McCormack wrote, "Bachmann seemed to go off the deep end," while Ed Morrissey wrote on the conservative site Hot Air, "The most charitable analysis that can be offered in this case for Bachmann is that she got duped into repeating a vaccine-scare urban legend on national television."

In response to Bachmann, Perry told NBC News, "You heard the same arguments about giving our children protections from some of the childhood diseases, and they were, autism was part of that. Now we've subsequently found out that was generated and not true" ("The Fix," Washington Post, 9/13). Perry spokesperson Mark Miner, said the comments from Palin and Bachmann are "ridiculous," adding, "You're going to have candidates grasping for straws and grasping to get attention. However, Gov. Perry will continue focusing on issues that matter to people, such as creating jobs and improving the economy" (New York Times, 9/13).

Medical Community Weighs In

Bachmann's remarks prompted public health leaders to speak out to correct misinformation about the safety of the HPV vaccine, USA Today reports.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found no sign that the HPV vaccine causes serious side effects. The vaccine is approved for girls beginning at age nine and is recommended by CDC for girls at ages 11 or 12 (Szabo, USA Today, 9/14). Many other medical groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Cancer Society, recommend that girls receive the vaccine to prevent cervical cancer (New York Times, 9/13).

AAP President Marion Burton on Tuesday released a statement "to correct false statements made in the Republican presidential campaign that HPV vaccine is dangerous and can cause mental retardation." He wrote, "There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement. Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record." Burton added that the vaccine should be given at age 11 or 12 "because this is that age at which the vaccine produces the best immune response in the body, and because it's important to protect girls well before the onset of sexual activity" (Hensley, "Shots," NPR, 9/13).

Joseph Bocchini, a pediatrician at the Louisiana State University and chair of the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices working group on the HPV vaccine, reiterated the safety of the vaccine, adding, "The scientific data is very clear. This is a very safe and effective vaccine" (Fox, National Journal, 9/13). Medical experts also noted that intellectual disabilities typically are diagnosed well before ages 11 or 12 (USA Today, 9/14). According to National Journal, it is possible that the mother meant to say the vaccine caused brain damage, though doctors said "even that is highly unlikely" (National Journal, 9/13).

Perry Received Nearly $30K From Merck

Part of Bachmann's attack on Perry focused on campaign contributions he received from Merck, which she suggested were in exchange for mandating the vaccine in Texas, the Los Angeles Times reports. At Monday's debate, Perry acknowledged that he received a contribution from Merck, which he said was about $5,000. Perry added that he was "offended" by the suggestion that $5,000 would buy his support.

However, Merck's political action committee actually gave Perry's campaign a total of $29,500 since 2001, according to Texas Ethics Commission filings. Merck donated $5,000 after Perry announced he would support the vaccinations (West, Los Angeles Times, 9/13). The company gave Perry $22,000 before he signed the executive order in 2007.

In addition, campaign finance records show that Merck has donated $352,500 to the Republican Governors Association since 2006, when Perry began to play an active role in the organization. Perry was the national campaign committee's chair in 2008, the group's finance chair in 2009 and national campaign committee chair in 2011.

Miner said there was no link between the campaign donations and the executive order. He said, "What was driving the governor is protecting life," adding that donations for RGA "weren't for his own campaign" but for "Republican candidates across the country" (Yadron [2], "Washington Wire," Wall Street Journal, 9/13). According to Texans for Public Justice, RGA is one of Perry's biggest donors, giving his campaign at least $4 million over the past five years (Eggen, Washington Post, 9/13).