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Texas governor defends vaccine order

AP | February 23, 2007  

HOUSTON - Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday angrily defended his relationship with Merck & Co. and his executive order requiring that schoolgirls receive the drugmaker's vaccine against the sexually transmitted cervical-cancer virus.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Perry's chief of staff had met with key aides about the vaccine on Oct. 16, the same day Merck's political action committee donated $5,000 to the governor's campaign.

Perry, touring cancer centers around the state, said the contributions were just a small share of the $24 million he raised and had no effect on his decision.

"When a company comes to me and says we have a cure for cancer, for me not to say, 'Please come into my office and let's hear your story for the people of the state of Texas, for young ladies who are dying of cancer,' would be the height of irresponsibility," the Republican governor said. "Whether or not they contributed to my campaign, I would suggest to you, are some of those weeds that we are trying to cut our way through."

Pressed on when he decided to issue the Feb. 2 executive order requiring the vaccination for sixth-grade girls, Perry snapped: "I wish you all would quit splitting hairs, frankly, and get focused on 'Are we going to be working together to find the cure for cancers?' No, I can't tell you when."

In issuing the order, the governor made Texas the first state to require the vaccine Gardasil for all schoolgirls. But many lawmakers have complained about his bypassing the Legislature altogether. And the disclosure regarding the campaign contributions could add momentum to an attempt by legislators to repeal Perry's executive order.

The executive order has inflamed conservatives, who said it contradicts Texas' abstinence-only sexual education policies and intrudes into families' lives.

Some GOP lawmakers said they were uncomfortable with the timing of the contributions.

"It's really a question of integrity ... whether or not his decisions were based on the contribution," state Rep. Linda Harper Brown.

On Wednesday, before the campaign contributions became known, the state House public health committee voted 6-3 to override Perry's order and sent the bill co-sponsored by nearly two-thirds of state representatives to the full House.

The House is not expected to take up the measure until mid-March. A repeal has also been introduced in the Senate, with nearly half the chamber signing on.

Perry said he has not decided whether to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

"I highly respect the legislative process that we have, and so I would respectfully tell you that we will let it play its way out," he said. "But do you think we would be having the debate today on HPV if I had said, 'Let's pass some legislation?'"

Critics have previously questioned Perry's ties to Merck. Mike Toomey, Perry's former chief of staff, now lobbies for the drug company. And the governor accepted a total of $6,000 from Merck during his re-election campaign.

Merck has waged a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign to get state legislatures to require girls to get the three-dose vaccine to enroll in school. But on Tuesday the pharmaceutical company announced it was suspending the effort because of pressure from parents and medical groups.

The Kentucky House on Thurday passed a bill that would require the vaccination for middle school girls unless their parents sign a form opposing it. The state has the nation's second-highest death rate from cervical cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the bill still needs Senate approval. Virginia lawmakers have also passed legislation requiring the vaccine, but the governor has not decided if he will sign it.


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