Michele Bachmann, Unprincipled Demagogue

I have a soft spot in my heart for Michele Bachman. She is as sharp as a whip, she is as tough as nails, she is easy on the eye, and she takes care with her appearance. It nearly always lifts my heart when I see her in a video, and I usually love what she has to say. Moreover, once upon a time in the past, in giving a talk, she actually read out a post I had put up on Powerline. What’s not to like?

There was something about her conduct in the debate on Monday night, however, that I did not like. She was obviously desperate. In the polls, where she had once ranked high, she had fallen to 4%; and, in her desperation, she crossed a line. Her imputation that Rick Perry’s decision to issue an executive order mandating the inoculation of young girls with Gardasil was due to the fact that Merck was a donor to his campaign was a low blow. As he explained, he had raised $30 million, and Merck gave his campaign $5,000. That she continued to pursue this charge in a television interview the next morning was disgraceful.

Even worse was her response to Perry’s statement that he was offended that she thought that he could be bought for $5,000. As you may remember, she said portentously that she was offended on behalf of the little girls and their parents. In a post on the debate, entitled Rick Perry and the Seven Dwarfs, Roger Simon hit the nail on the head: “To Bachmann and Santorum this attempt to prevent cancer, whether ill-founded or not, was a form of child molestation or something. The more they went on about this, the more rabid, and frankly scary, they sounded.”

The truth is, of course, that Perry was legitimately concerned about the welfare of those little girls. We are in the midst of an epidemic. The Center for Disease Control  estimates that one-half of all Americans who are sexually active will sooner or later get human papillomavirus (HPV). We have known for nearly forty years that one of the strains of this disease (HPV-16) causes cervical cancer in women; we now know that it can cause cancer in men; and , more often than not, the cancer strikes women and men in their thirties and forties.  There are six million new cases of HPV every year, and 99% of those who get the virus have no idea that they have contracted it. For them, there are no symptoms – which makes it all the more likely that they will pass it on.

There are two vaccines on the market that target HPV-16: Gardasil and Cervarix. They are, Men’s Health reports,

95 percent effective in girls and young women and 90 percent effective in boys and young men when administered before exposure to the strain [my emphasis].  But despite the impressive percentages, vaccination is a controversial issue for many parents, in part because the possible side effects include fever, fainting, and (rarely) severe allergic reaction and blood clots. Some parents also have trouble with the idea of protecting their prepubescent kids from a virus related to sex, while other parents, mistakenly believing that HPV affects only girls (in the form of cervical cancer), assume that vaccinating boys is irrelevant. The result: Roughly 4 percent of boys have received the shot. Last year, in a move that may sway hesitant parents, the American Academy of Pediatrics included HPV in its schedule of vaccines for boys.

These are the fears that, in a desperate attempt to keep their candidacies alive, Michele Bachmann (and Rick Santorum) are playing on and stoking. Rick Perry may have erred in issuing an executive order providing for the immunization of the young girls in Texas. It may well be the case that he should have taken the matter to the legislature. He may also have erred when he stipulated that the immunizations would take place if the parents of the girls did not opt out. But he was not wrong in encouraging the immunizations. He was following the lead of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

HPV is not contagious in the manner that polio, measles, and whooping cough are. It is passed by sexual contact – including oral sex. If a young man and a young woman avoid sexual contact before marrying and never stray, they will escape it. If, however, either one of them has ever committed a sin of the flesh, the odds are reasonably good that they will both end up with the disease and that neither one will be aware of the fact. This is not, as some are apt to argue, a purely private matter. Like polio, measles, and whooping cough – though not to the same degree – it falls into the realm of public health, for the disease contracted by one who is not innocent of misconduct is apt to pass to one who is, and the results can be fatal. It is Rick Perry who demonstrated that he cares for the welfare of those little girls. Michele Bachmann’s conduct in this particular shows that she is willing to sacrifice their interests for the sake of demagoguery.

If you have any doubts, take a look at this video , where Bachmann revives the old discredited fears spread in the past about vaccinations in general by endorsing the view that Gardasil can cause mental retardation. This she does on the basis of a claim made to her after the debate by a woman with a retarded child. That is all the evidence she had.

Here is what Evan Siegfried of the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership said in response, “Congressman Bachmann’s decision to spread fear of vaccines is dangerous and irresponsible. There is zero credible scientific evidence that vaccines cause mental retardation or autism. She should cease trying to foment fear in order to advance her political agenda.” Siegfried is right. One of the reasons why measles and whooping cough have made a comeback is that parents, frightened by the sort of nonsense that Michele Bachmann is now propagating, are reluctant to have their children immunized.

Before a vaccine like Gardasil goes on the market, the Food and Drug Administration has it put through an enormous amount of testing. If anything, the FDA is too cautious in this regard. Readers of this post who are instinctively inclined to side with Bachmann on this matter might want to ask why the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending that prepubescent girls and boys be given these shots.

And Michele Bachmann? She owes Rick Perry a public apology, and she owes an apology to the parents whom she has misled.  It is, in any case, time that she dropped out of the race. Her unscrupulous, unprincipled pursuit of a nomination that she never had a chance of getting is now leading her to do positive harm – and not just to her party and its likely nominee, but to boys and girls throughout the land. She should head for the exits before she does herself and the rest of us more harm.