Saying that the US’s pre-1960s immigration policies (such as the Asian Exclusion Act) worked “very, very well” wasn’t the only “noteworthy” thing Michele Bachmann said at Monday night’s CNN/Tea Party Republican presidential candidates’ debate. In criticizing Texas Gov. Rick Perry over his executive order that would have mandated vaccination for state schoolgirls against human papillomavirus, a cause of cervical cancer, Bachmann voiced fears about giving children vaccines that sounded mighty familiar to parents of autistic children and others who’ve been saying till we’re beyond blue in the face for the past several years, no, vaccines or something in vaccines do not cause autism.
I’m a mom. And I’m a mom of three children. And to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong. That should never be done. It’s a violation of a liberty interest.
Little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don’t get a mulligan. They don’t get a do-over. The parents don’t get a do-over. …
I’m offended for all the little girls and the parents that didn’t have a choice. That’s what I’m offended for.
While noting her use of “slight creepy imagery of a rapist state government,” the Atlantic Wire commented that she was “still on safe territory” as Gardasil, the vaccine under scrutiny, has been ”linked to blood clots and the neurological disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome.” Vaccines have side effects but these do not include autism — as many, including celebrity Jenny McCarthy have claimed while citing conspiracy theories about “Big Pharma” and the CDC — and they do not include mental retardation, contrary to what Bachmann said in an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today show Tuesday morning. Said Bachmann:
I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa after the debate. She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. It can have very dangerous side effects.
Reading this was simply déjà vu all over to me. Bachmann’s account of what the Tampa mother said closely parallels the narratives of parents who claim that a vaccine or something in a vaccine caused their child to become autistic (here is an example). Her comment was yet more scaremongering about vaccines that, as Dr. Paul Offit described in his 2008 book Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search For a Cure, has been going on since there’s been public health campaigns to vaccinate people. Bachmann’s claims not only echo those of parents of autistic children like the Rev. Lisa Sykes, but of anti-vaccine crusaders whose underlying concern was to make sure the government did not infringe on people’s personal rights.
Two bioethics professors, Steven Miles of the University of Minnesota and Art Caplan, the director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics, have offered rewards ($1000 and $10,000) if the Tampa woman who made the HPV vaccine-mental retardation claim to Bachmann will come forward with “medical proof,” says the Star-Tribune. The American Academy of Pediatrics was quick to release a statement in which its president, Dr. O. Marion Burton, said that
The American Academy of Pediatrics would like to correct false statements made in the Republican presidential campaign that HPV vaccine is dangerous and can cause mental retardation. There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement. Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record.
Mindful of the lasting, inaccurate connection in the public mind that vaccines can somehow “contribute” to autism, the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership‘s spokesman Evan Siegfried told Politico’s Ben Smith:
“Congresswoman 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.”
Even Rush Limbaugh criticized Bachmann, says the Guardian, which points out that Bachmann recorded no opposition to the mandatory use of the Hepatitis B vaccination in Minnesota, where she served in the state legislature for five years:
Michele Bachmann, she might have blown it today. Well, not blown it – she might have jumped the shark today. If she’d just left it alone on this vaccination thing from last night.
She’s now out saying that this Gardasil drug now causes mental retardation. Somebody in the audience came up to her and told her that – that’s jumping the shark on this. There’s no evidence that the vaccine causes mental retardation. That’s a shame.
As the Atlantic Wire observes, conservatives were not so happy to hear Bachmann wading — sloshing — into making conspiracy-theory-laced claims about vaccines:
“The most charitable analysis,” Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey says, is that Bachmann “got duped into repeating a vaccine-scare urban legend on national television.” Slublog tweets, “Yeah, fantastic. Let’s become the Jenny McCarthy party.”
It’s possible, though, that they’re already the Jenny McCarthy party. At the debate, Bachmann prefaced her fears about the HPV vaccine by asserting “I’m a mom.” That’s exactly the familiar “I walk in your shoes, I know your pain” stance that McCarthy used in her book Louder Than Words: A Mother’s Journey In Healing Autism about “treating” her son’s autism and when she became a frequent presence at rallies to “Green Our Vaccines” and a spokesperson about experimental biomedical “treatments” for autism. What really offends Bachmann is that “the little girls and the parents … didn’t have a choice” to say no to the HPV vaccine: Her reasons for bringing up the HPV vaccine were only superficially about public health, and all about saying that Americans need the government interfering less in their lives.
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Photo by Gage Skidmore