Beating Up on Michele Bachmann

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 15, 2011

It is the right thing to do, and Avik Roy does it right:

Rep. Bachmann spent a lot of time hammering Gov. Perry for his executive order requiring 12-year-old Texan girls to receive Gardasil, an HPV vaccine that prevents cervical cancer. (Parents retained the option of opting out of the program, and the executive order was never implemented, due to intense public opposition. Cervarix is an alternative vaccine marketed by GlaxoSmithKline.)

I’m generally not a fan of insurance mandates. They drive up the cost of insurance, and are susceptible to the influence of special-interest lobbying (e.g., the acupuncturists’ society lobbying for mandated coverage of acupuncture). But as far as mandates go, vaccines are the least objectionable. HPV is an infectious virus that causes cervical cancer; by giving girls the vaccine, we can ensure that carriers of HPV don’t infect others, thereby reducing the incidence of cervical cancer. Is this really so terrible? According to Bachmann, it is:

I’m a mom. And I’m a mom of three children. And to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong. That should never be done. It’s a violation of a liberty interest.

That’s—little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don’t get a mulligan. They don’t get a do-over. The parents don’t get a do-over. That’s why I fought so hard in Washington, D.C., against President Obama and Obamacare.

I mean, come on. Pretty much every sentence in this passage is false. No one was “forced to have a government injection.” As I noted above, people could opt out of the never-implemented program. And Gardasil, Merck’s HPV vaccine, went through a rigorous, FDA-approved program of clinical trials and manufacturing inspections, with the weight of the evidence indicating that it is far more “dangerous” to go without the vaccine than to take it. Is it also “flat out wrong” that innocent 2-month-old babies get the diphtheria vaccine?

It gets worse. In media appearances following the debate, Bachmann claimed, all evidence to the contrary, that HPV vaccines can cause “mental retardation.”

The sensitivity around the HPV vaccine comes from the fact that HPV is sexually transmitted. And Perry attempted to respect that legitimate concern by allowing parents to opt out of the program. But to me, Bachmann’s inflammatory, fact-free rhetoric is reminiscent of the campaign against fluoridation of the public water supply: something that some in the 1950s considered a “communist plot to undermine public health.”

I generally oppose communist plots to undermine public health, but fluoridation didn’t turn out to be one. Neither will Gardasil. If anything, it’s Bachmann who is undermining public health by scaring people away from vaccines that prevent cervical cancer.

I can’t leave the subject of Bachmann without bringing up the fact that she repeated her eccentric claim that it’s “unconstitutional” for states to impose health insurance mandates. I don’t know a single constitutional scholar, left or right, who believes this; states have long been held to have this plenary power (which is used, for example, to impose auto insurance mandates). Does Bachmann think auto insurance mandates are unconstitutional?

For all of Bachmann’s lectures on the importance of adhering to the Constitution, this one is a head-scratcher. In the South Carolina Palmetto Forum, Bachmann said, “I believe that it’s inherent in the Constitution” that states couldn’t impose insurance mandates. Princeton professor Robert George, trying to be helpful, asked, “So to say it’s inherent sounds like there’s not a particular provision you can point to?” To which Bachmann responded: “Well, I’m sure you could enlighten me as to that provision.” That is, she doesn’t know.

Via Ben Domenech, who yesterday, pointed to an excellent and appropriate quote from Benjamin Franklin:

In 1736, I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox…I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it, my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.

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