Michele Bachmann needles Perry on vaccinations

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Sept. 15 2011 2:10 PM

Michele Bachmann needles Perry on vaccinations

The antiscience stance of the Republican candidates for President is getting so chaotic I swear I need a scorecard to keep it all straight. The latest: Michele Bachmann goes antivax.

No, seriously. Generally associated with the far left, antivaccination rhetoric reared its head at the latest Republican candidate debate. In 2007, Governor Rick Perry of Texas -- and current front runner of the cohort of White House contenders -- issued an Executive Order mandating the Gardasil vaccination for girls. This vaccination prevents girls from getting the human papillomavirus, or HPV, a virus that is a major factor in contracting cervical cancer later in life. This cancer has a greater than 30% fatality rate once contracted, and is a horrible, horrible condition. 20 million people in the US alone carry the virus.

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Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  


Mandating vaccinations is actually something of a difficult topic, and my stand on it is somewhat nuanced (though I do lean towards saying "yes, they should be under most circumstances").

Representative Bachmann is not quite so subtle. During the recent debate, she tried to hammer Rick Perry on this issue, saying it's wrong to mandate vaccines, saying that Gardasil "can have very dangerous side effects".

That's pretty misleading. Gardasil's dangers are minimal, and have been grossly exaggerated by the media. But Bachmann is going for broke with her claims; she's now saying this:

"There's a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate," Bachmann said after the debate, where she had told Perry on stage that she was "offended" by his decision. "She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine."

There has never been a single confirmed case of anything like this happening (in fact, a bioethicist has offered Bachmann $10,000 if she can come up with some evidence for her statement; no word from her campaign so far). Some people do have adverse reactions to vaccinations, but they are rare (like a girl who had an extraordinarily rare mitochondrial disorder which might -- might -- have caused a vaccine-related problem). But mental retardation from Gardasil is totally unheard-of.

The source is incredibly suspect, too. A unnamed woman came up to Bachmann and told her this unsubstantiated story? And Bachmann goes on national TV to score points with it? The line of evidence breaks down at every step here. Bachmann saying this during a nationally televised debate is nothing short of shameful. And reckless.

She's not the only one making hay of this, either. A PAC backing Ron Paul has a video that calls Gardasil "an STD vaccine". That a pretty cynical spin on it; the issue of vaccinating against HPV is not about sex, it's about health. However, because HPV is contracted through sexual contact, this also plays into the far-right's morality issues.

Generally speaking, antivaxxers tend to be to the left of the political spectrum. I doubt Bachmann is sincerely trying to woo that vote. More likely, she is just displaying more of her antiscience predilections like creationism and global warming denialism.

I also doubt Bachmann would've gotten the Republican nomination even before she said something like this, but mirroring the thinking of the far-left could very well sink her once and for all inside her own party. We'll see. But don't forget: even if and when she's gone, we'll still have a coterie of antireality candidates to deal with on that ticket.

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