The right wing’s favorite virus: The real scandal behind the HPV story

Rick Perry kissing babies on the campaign trail

Rick Perry has had a rough month. He started as the right wing’s favorite candidate for President of the U.S, a sort of Reagan redivivus, complete with shellacked hair, crinkly face, and a stable of writers to feed him lines.   Unfortunately, it turns out not just that he has a propensity for forgetting his cues and collapsing into stammers, but that this man –who carries a gun while jogging, let James Earl Ray name his summer camp, and keeps an electric chair in his kitchen where the toaster used to be, to kill the socialist mailman if he runs late — this man is not conservative enough.   Despite all his manly virtues, he made enemies of a little virus that right-wingers consider one of their closest friends, maybe second only to the Koch brothers as a comrade-in-arms.  The ins and outs of this story haven’t been well reported. But they show a lot about what American conservatism thinks not just of science, but of women’s lives.

Perry’s sin is that, as Texas governor, he ordered all schoolgirls vaccinated with Gardasil prior to entering the sixth grade. Gardasil is a relatively new treatment that prevents getting the genital human papillomavirus (HPV).   HPV is transmitted by sexual contact, can cause genital warts and other minor afflictions, but can also lead to cervical and other forms of cancer.

For this he has been roundly attacked by fellow Republican presidentiables Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. Here they go: 

Although the vaccine is in fact “administered intramuscularly in the upper arm or thigh,” you would suppose, to hear Bachmann, that little girls were being raped with a construction crane. And if you were a relatively innocent right-winger, you might think: what a missed opportunity! As long as the government is scraping around in those girls’ vaginas, it  could do a virginity test, and ship off any spoiled maidens who fail it to Abstinence Camp, where the Big Matron will make them work their fingers to the bone sewing hymens for starving children in Alabama.  So what exactly is the problem here?

Bachmann and Santorum are, of course, competing to be even crazier than Rick Perry, which is hard. But they prove it’s not impossible. Bachmann, whose husband tries to cure gays by subjecting them to endless mashups of The Brady Bunch with Kirk Cameron’s face pasted over Greg’s body, believes that the HPV virus causes mental retardation, largely because she found traces of it in her chili at Wendy’s.   Santorum, who personally inspects the genital setups of toy dogs and amphibians to determine how gay men can best penetrate their anal cavities, believes that the HPV vaccine drives people to have constant uncontrolled sex, often with humans, but failing that with hamsters, centipedes, and electric fans.

It is also interesting to contemplate the different but very serious family values these two candidates embody. Michele Bachmann raises eighty-five foster children, whom she picked up by going through the trash cans outside Angelina Jolie’s home. Rick Santorum, who has been a virgin since he was a tiny fetus, has thirteen and a half children who were immaculately conceived when an angel poured a vialful of frothy brown lubricant down his wife’s ear.

More seriously: the coverage of this has focused on Perry’s ties to Merck, the pharmaceutical giant that makes the vaccine and is a big donor to his campaigns. But there’s another reason, beyond so-called “crony capitalism” or opportunism or moral outrage on behalf of violated girls, that motivates the right-wing rage at Perry.

Christians love this

Conservatives have loved the human papillomavirus for a long time. Why? The secret is that it is one of the very few sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) that condoms can’t prevent.  Because it’s spread from and to areas outside the genitals themselves, laminating the penis isn’t enough to stop it.  Hence this little bundle of amino acids, created by God along with instant coffee on Day Six, has become a poster child and symbol for the right, as much as Terry Schiavo or Ground Zero. It features in their classroom presentations, their videos, their home-school curricula. Resiliently disregarding rubber, it proves that condoms don’t work. There is at least one dangerous condition against which they’re, literally, impotent. The lesson for the horny and unmarried is: only abstaining completely from all activities below the waist that are unrelated to shitting, pissing, or footwear can save you from certain death.

When Gardasil first appeared, then, conservatives reacted as though the Jews were proposing to recrucify Christ.  One of their best friends was going to be exterminated in a holocaust of triple-injection doses. They fought a long campaign to keep the vaccine off the market, despite lack of any credible pointers to harmful effects.  The right distributed or concocted accounts of adverse reactions practically as bad as a Pentecostal visitation:

A 14 year-old girl took six steps after being injected with the vaccine before she collapsed to the floor unconscious and foaming at the mouth. The girl regained consciousness after “a 60 second grand mal seizure” and had “pale clammy skin” and blood pressure of 60/40.  … “Given all the questions about Gardasil, the best public health policy would be to re-evaluate its safety and to prohibit its distribution to minors,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “In the least, governments should rethink any efforts to mandate or promote this vaccine for children.”

Judicial Watch is a wealthy litigation center for the US right. One of its founders, Larry Klayman, is close to Michele Bachmann, who happily recycles this propaganda. The truth is that before the US Food and Drug Administration licensed it, Gardasil was subjected to worldwide clinical trials in which over 29,000 people participated. The US Center for Disease Control offers a full report on findings and concerns about vaccine safety, and says, “Based on all of the information we have today, CDC recommends HPV vaccination for the prevention of most types of cervical cancer.”

The real concern about the vaccine was that, by rendering HPV less scary, it undermined abstinence-only programs. Michelle Goldberg, in Kingdom Coming, her book on the Christian right, sums up the story.

[As] the British magazine New Scientist reported in April 2005, American religious groups “are gearing up to oppose vaccination.”

“Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV,” the Family Research Council’s Bridget Maher told New Scientist. [Family Research Council is one of the largest US right-wing groups.] “Giving the HPV vaccine to young women would be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a licence to engage in premarital sex.”

“I’m very concerned about the HPV vaccine,” [Leslee Unruh, head of a Christian anti-sex group called the Abstinence Clearinghouse] told me. “You know, here we go again.”  To her, the vaccine, like condoms, is just another way for people to avoid living as they should.

The Bush administration appointed a honcho from Christian-right powerhouse Focus on the Family, one Reginald Finger–yes, that’s his name–to the FDA panel advising on the HPV vaccine’s fate. Finger told the press, “if people begin to market the vaccine or tout the vaccine that this makes adolescent sex safer, then that would undermine the abstinence-only message.”  He added, “There are people who sense that [the vaccine] could cause people to feel like sexual behaviors are safer if they are vaccinated and may lead to more sexual behavior because they feel safe.”

Despite all this — or, more likely, because people like Finger and Unruh were dumb enough to make their exact fears public — the vaccine was eventually approved. But what the scandal shows is a right wing that could care less, despite its pious claims, about young girls’ lives. The National Organization for Women says Christian conservatism “relies on a fear of cancer death to promote abstinence.” Fewer dead, less fear. The more who die, the more who are scared straight.  So much for a “culture of life!”  Death = power. Disease = political advantage. Virus = virtue.

And the backlash against Perry for doing one halfway smart thing in his political career shows that people who defy the opportunism of fear to save lives will pay for it. I almost feel sorry for Rick Perry (no, not quite).  This single proof of unreliability will haunt him.   And more accusations against this one-shot savant in kook’s clothing, this closet liberal dragged up as a respectably crazy man, will follow.  What can you expect of a candidate who was born in Paint Creek, Kenya?