Perhaps one of the larger- if not the largest- indicator of the uniquely American religious influence on public policy amongst Western countries is the bizarre, large-scale opposition to the HPV vaccine, Gardasil.
The relatively irrelevant-to-politics controversy over the HPV vaccine has unsurprisingly become a wedge issue leading up to the 2012 election, another battleground in the “culture war” many conservatives seem to believe America is currently fighting. (It would probably do those types well to remember we’re actually fighting actual wars in which Americans die every day.) The issue was front and center during recent Republican debates, and many candidates are toting opposition to the vaccine as a campaign platform, perhaps to divert attention to lack of substance in other areas like economic strategy.
It’s probably also not a surprise that religulous Republican frontrunner Michelle Bachmann is leading the pack of know-nothings, hoisting up HPV vaccine opposition as if the position is something of which to be proud. If you’re not aware of the HPV vaccine’s existence, when administered at an early age, the shot provides later protection against cervical cancer caused by the human papilloma virus- also known as HPV. While the condition is technically a sexually transmitted disease, it can be contracted by any woman exposed- for instance, a marriage to a philandering or otherwise infected man provides no protection from painful and avoidable death from the disease, nor does infection during a rape.
Bachmann and her ilk oppose vaccination ostensibly on the grounds it gives license to a woman to be sexually promiscuous. But instead of presenting her concerns accurately during a recent debate, Bachmann framed her opposition as one based in worries about the vaccine’s safety:
“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.” She repeated the story to several news outlets over the next 24 hours and sent a fundraising letter to supporters about the exchange she had with Perry on the debate stage.
Given the fact the HPV vaccine is relatively new, Bachmann could have caused real harm- and eventual death- by planting such a harmful notion with no indication the anecdote was true. Later, when pressed by Sean Hannity, she admitted that she did not know if the tale was accurate. It’s unlikely Bachmann herself will correct the misinformation, so two professors have stepped up and offered $11,000 if the woman in Bachmann’s story will step up and allow her claim to be verified- if she exists at all.
University of Michigan bioethics professor Steven Miles stepped forward and offered $1K if the woman is real, inspiring another professor to up the ante:
His offer was upped by his former boss from the University of Minnesota, Art Caplan, who is now director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics. Caplan said he would match Miles’ challenge and offered $10,000 for proof of the HPV vaccine victim.
“‘These types of messages in this climate have the capacity to do enormous public health harm,’” Miles said of why he made the offer. ‘The woman, assuming she exists, put this claim into the public domain and it’s an extremely serious claim and it deserves to be analyzed.’”
It will be interesting to see not only if Bachmann’s tale holds up- I largely suspect it will not- but more so whether she will man up and retract her claim based on the fact real, living women can eventually die if not protected by the HPV vaccine. In 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 4,021 women in the United States alone died from the treatable disease.