Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.
“If you’re saying I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended,” Rick Perry shot back during Monday night’s Republican debate in response to an allegation that campaign donations from pharmaceutical company Merck had swayed his behavior as Texas governor.In fact, it does take more than $5,000 to buy Perry: a September 13 Washington Post article revealed that his gubernatorial campaigns have received not $5,000, as Perry claimed during the debate, but nearly $30,000 from Merck since 2000. Moreover, the Republican Governors Association, for which Perry had served as chairman in 2008 and 2011 prior to his presidential bid, has received more than $380,000 from Merck and its subsidiaries, according to the Post.Though this incident has underscored Perry’s ability to be simultaneously untruthful and tirelessly self-righteous, it has a broader significance. Michelle Bachmann, Perry’s chief accuser on his ties to Merck, said on Tuesday’s NBC “Today” show that “it’s very clear that crony capitalism could likely have been the cause” of the Texas governor’s decision to make Merck’s human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination mandatory for 11-12 year old girls in his state.As Lindsay Beyerstein notes, Bachmann is trying to “cast doubt on Perry’s credentials as a cultural conservative” and side with those who believe that preventing sexually transmitted diseases encourages sexual promiscuity. But Gardasil, Merck’s HPV vaccine, has long been viewed with skepticism by those in favor of both protecting women’s health and preventing pharmaceutical giants from profiteering in its name.
In 2007, Merck launched its new vaccine, which protects against the two HPV strains that cause 70% of cervical cancers, and almost immediately began pushing to make the vaccine mandatory for 11-12 year-old girls. In These Times senior editor Terry J. Allen characterized the company’s timing on this push as “transparent”: at the time, Merck was tied up in a number of costly liability lawsuits over an arthritis drug that may have caused as many as 28,000 deaths, leading critics to refer to the campaign for mandatory vaccination as the “Help Pay for Vioxx” program.In a piece for CorpWatch.com, Allen documented a far-reaching lobbying campaign by Merck that capitalized on a purported interest in women’s health. At the behest of Women in Government, a nonprofit that received Merck funding, a state-by-state lobbying campaign resulted in the introduction of bills for mandatory vaccination in 20 states.This was despite the fact that, as a recently-approved drug, the full range of adverse reactions to Gardasil, particularly in children, were yet uncertain. Allen notes that “while most people applauded the new protection Gardasil offered, both experts and consumers”—including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control—“found good reasons for waiting before making the vaccine mandatory.”In most states, Merck’s push was unsuccessful and eventually came to be seen as unseemly. Texas was a notable exception. Circumventing the conservative Texas legislature, Rick Perry passed an executive order in February 2007 that would have required girls entering the sixth grade to be vaccinated unless their parents opted out.While Perry backed off after the legislature overturned his order, the governor’s sudden interest in public health struck many as suspicious. As Allen reported, it eventually emerged that the state director of Women in Government was the mother-in-law of Perry’s then-chief of staff and that his former chief of staff had gone on to become a lobbyist for Merck.So, score one for Michelle Bachmann, despite her transparent motives: Perry’s 2007 decision was the textbook definition of crony capitalism.