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Rick Perry's HPV Vaccine Record Exposes Confusing Inconsistencies

Texas Gov. Rick Perry answers questions after a speech before a Virginia Republican fundraiser in Richmond, Va., Sept. 14, 2011.
Steve Helber
Texas Gov. Rick Perry answers questions after a speech before a Virginia Republican fundraiser in Richmond, Va., Sept. 14, 2011.

If nothing else, the controversy over Texas Gov. Rick Perry's mandating the use of the human papillomavirus vaccine in 12-year old girls, demonstrates the pronounced contradictions in his professed world view.

The frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination accepts the scientific consensus when it comes to the safety and efficacy of the vaccine that prevents the HPV virus that causes cervical and other cancers.

But he has openly expressed doubts about the scientific consensus in the matters of evolution or the human role in global warming.

Similarly, Perry has repeatedly said he wants to make federal government "inconsequential" in the lives of citizens.

But his 2007 vaccine executive order suggests he had no such desire for limiting the role of his state's government in the lives of individuals.

Perry certainly isn't the first presidential candidate to have contradictory or seemingly situational positions on issues. But his contradictions are certainly among the most interesting and, in a way, confusing.

For instance, Perry has made no secret of his religious faith. There was his revival-style camp-ground meeting in August in Houston and just this week he was at the Rev. Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va, telling an audience of the importance of his faith to his public service.

But his position on Gardasil, the vaccine against HPV infection, runs counter to the stance of Christian conservatives.

They generally believe as a matter of principle that vaccinating adolescents against a sexually transmitted disease sends a message of permissiveness.Better to promote abstinence, they say.

Perry departed from that position, however, taking a much more liberal position, one that comported with medical and public health science, that abstinence isn't as sure a prevention as a vaccine.

How much his position on Gardasil was driven by science and how much of it, if any, by his former chief of staff being a lobbyist for Merck, the vaccine's manufacturer, or the company's financial contributions to his political endeavors, presumably only Perry knows. Of course, maybe he doesn't since, as scientists have informed us, decisions are often made because of subconscious biases.

The problem for someone trying to form a coherent understanding of Perry's stance on Gardasil versus his positions on evolution or global warming is that logic would argue that he support Darwinism and anthropogenic climate change with equal vigor as Gardasil.

The case for the HPV vaccine, evolution and the human contribution are all based on the scientific method — hypotheses that are proven true by experimentation and data.

Of course, if you cherry pick which data you'll accept based on what outcome you want, then you can reach contradictory results evident in Perry's world view.

But the resulting incoherence then raises questions about why you hold certain views and not others. It can't be about science, in other words.

Similarly, Perry's HPV vaccine decision highlights contradictory views when it comes to individual rights versus government authority.

Perry has espoused the primacy of individual rights and individual responsibility in his book "Fed Up" and in his speeches. That would seem to argue for leaving the decision to vaccinate children to parents.

But Perry's actions suggested that individual rights can't be paramount to him, that there are times when government authority trumps individual rights. How else could be justify a state government mandate that 12-year old girls be given the HPV vaccine unless parents opted out?

For someone who has criticized the federal government for trampling individual rights, it seems a contradictory position to hold that a state government can do the same, merely because it is closer to the people. Is federal government tyranny intolerable but state government tyranny acceptable, to use the language of the Tea Party?

These confusing inconsistencies may explain why Perry is so vulnerable on the HPV vaccine and has struggled to come up with persuasive explanations. Not that it seems to have hurt him in national polls.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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