Women’s Groups Split Over Texas Governor’s Vaccination Plan

By Beth Schwartzapfel

Published February 16, 2007, issue of February 16, 2007.
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In a surprise move, certain pro-choice women’s organizations — including the largest Jewish one — are joining Christian conservatives in criticizing the governor of Texas for requiring sixth-grade girls to be vaccinated against a cancer-causing sexually transmitted disease.

Governor Rick Perry, who is generally seen as a staunch ally of the Christian right, last week signed an executive order making Texas the first state to require vaccination against human papillomavirus, or HPV, which causes genital warts and in some cases is associated with the development of cell abnormalities and, later, cancer.

The order was promptly criticized by conservative Christian organizations. In subsequent days, many national women’s groups, including the largest Jewish one, Hadassah, also declined to support Perry’s initiative. In both camps, activists are couching their objections as a matter of protecting choice — a major fault line in the abortion debate, but a concept with the potential to unify erstwhile political enemies as states across the country debate whether to require the HPV vaccine.

Two exceptions are Jewish Women International and the National Council of Jewish Women, which, unlike Hadassah, are voicing support for Perry’s executive order.

“This is certainly something that NCJW is pleased about,” the council’s president, Phyllis Snyder, told the Forward. “This is responsible health and fiscal policy to provide these vaccines that are going to save lives. We congratulate [Perry] and commend him for choosing common sense over ideology.”

Many of the liberal organizations refusing to voice support for Perry, including the National Organization of Women, have been generally supportive of the vaccine but say they are averse to any government attempt to curb the freedom of choice, whether the issue is abortion or some other medical procedure.

“NOW has never agreed with any mandate on anything,” the organization’s press secretary, Mai Shiozaki, told the Forward.

Hadassah issued an informational statement on the vaccine, calling it a “breakthrough” and recommending “that you have a frank and open discussion with a health professional to make certain it is right for you or your loved one.”

The organization’s national public affairs director, Roberta Elliott, said that Hadassah was loath to be seen as endorsing any particular medical brand. When asked about claims that Perry’s executive order would limit the choices of families, she said, “All medical decisions are private decisions. The women’s choice issue is not one that we want the government involved in at any level.”

National and Texas chapters of Planned Parenthood and Naral Pro-Choice America did not return calls for comment.

The conservative Christian group Focus on the Family issued a statement in support of the HPV vaccine, but in opposition to making it mandatory. Cathie Adams, president of another conservative group, the Texas Eagle Forum, was quoted in the local press as saying she would fight to overturn the order.

“Would [girls who receive the vaccine] be more promiscuous? Chances are very good that they would be,” Adams told the Austin American-Statesman.

In Utah, conservative groups helped kill a similar bill that would have covered the vaccine for underinsured girls.

Perry has been seen as an ally of religious conservatives. In June 2005, he traveled to an evangelical school to sign an anti-abortion and an anti-gay-marriage bill. (In a botched attempt to include a Jewish voice, the governor’s staff invited David Stone, religious leader of Fort Worth’s “messianic Jewish” Congregation Beth Yeshua.)

Critics of Perry’s recent order note that his former chief of staff is now a lobbyist for Merck, the pharmaceutical company that produces the vaccine, known as Gardasil.

Approved last June, Gardasil provides almost 100% protection against four strains of HPV, which together account for 70% of cervical cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The vaccine is administered as three shots given over eight months, and it is effective for up to five years. It is approved for females aged 8 to 26, but the CDC specifically recommends vaccinating girls ages 11 and 12, in order to protect them before the start of sexual activity.

Merck stands to gain hundreds of millions of dollars from mandatory-vaccination laws. The three-shot series of Gardasil costs $360; making the series mandatory ensures that the vaccine will be covered by the federal Vaccines for Children program and by state Medicaid programs for low-income children.

When the CDC includes a vaccine on its schedule of those recommended, state legislatures often choose to require that all schoolchildren be vaccinated before entering school, even if the disease is not passed by casual contact. Vaccination against the hepatitis B virus, for instance, is required before entrance to middle or high school in 45 states, even though the virus is generally transmitted sexually. Most such requirements include an “opt out” provision, allowing parents to choose not to vaccinate their children for religious or other personal reasons. Eighteen states are considering such legislation for Gardasil.

“Mandatory means making it a routine thing, committing government support to it,” Wendy Chavkin, professor of clinical population and family health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, told the Forward. “It’s a way to ensure that it’s not just for the privileged, it’s not just for those with health insurance or private care. It’s a real advance.”

Responding to critics who are wary of a policy that might be seen as impinging on choice, Chavkin said, “Isn’t that a kind of rinky-dink understanding of choice? Cervical cancer is a really nasty disease.”

With reporting by Jennifer Siegel.

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