AUSTIN - Bowing to legislative pressure, Gov. Rick Perry said Tuesday he won’t veto a bill that would block state officials from following his order requiring an anti-cancer vaccine for sixth-grade schoolgirls.
The Republican governor gave a lengthy, passionate speech accusing the Legislature of politicizing the debate over his February executive order requiring the human papillomavirus vaccine for girls starting in September 2008.
But he acknowledged a veto would almost certainly be overridden and said he will allow the bill to become law without his signature.
“It is time to move this issue from the political arena to the court of public opinion where real lives are at stake, and it is time to do so without delay,” Perry said.
The Legislature last overturned a veto in 1979. The votes are extremely rare, primarily because most major bills are passed in the session’s waning days. In this case, however, lawmakers pushed the proposal through quickly so they would have time for an override.
Immediately after the governor issued the order, lawmakers loudly complained about being left out of the decision. They questioned the vaccine’s cost, safety and efficacy and said the mandate would intrude too far into families’ lives.
The bill the Legislature sent to the governor last month would bar state officials from requiring the shots for four years. At that point, lawmakers could extend the ban or allow health officials to add the shots to the list of vaccinations required for school attendance.
Rep. Dennis Bonnen, the bill's sponsor, said Perry made the right decision.
“He’s ensured that parents and doctors will decide what the best thing for a young girl to do is, over at least the next four years and then we’ll revisit the issue,” said Bonnen, R-Angleton.
The vaccine protects girls and women against strains of the sexually transmitted virus that cause most cases of cervical cancer and genital warts. Merck & Co.’s Gardasil is the only HPV vaccine on the market.
About half of all men and women are infected with HPV at some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency recommends that girls get the vaccine when they are 11 or 12 so they will have immunity before they become sexually active.
“I’m pleased that Gov. Perry will allow parents - not policymakers - to exercise their right to make medical decisions for their children,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said in a statement. “I’ve always believed the HPV vaccine can be an important cancer prevention tool, but it should be an option for parents to consider, not a mandate.
“House Bill 1098, which passed the Senate 30-to-1, respects parents’ rights, permits us to study the HPV vaccine and its medical consequences, and provides us more time to craft health care policy that’s in the best interest of all Texans,” Dewhurst said, saying he complimented the governor “for raising public awareness of this important health issue in Texas and across the nation.”
Dewhurst said the conflict could have been avoided if Perry had consulted with the Legislature before issuing his mandate.
“All the governor would have had to do was talk to us, and he would have seen we would have embraced a program that was opt-in instead of opt-out,” Dewhurst was also quoted in a Senate report.
During his speech, Perry was flanked by four women whose lives have been affected by cervical cancer or HPV. One woman contracted a virulent form of the virus when she was raped in December. Another endured three rounds of chemotherapy, three invasive surgeries and 37 rounds of radiation after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
While none of them spoke, a fifth woman who was too weak to come to Austin gave a videotaped message in which she described her sadness about losing the opportunity to marry and have children.
“If I could help one child, take this cancer away from one child, it would mean the world to me,” Heather Burcham said from her hospice bed. “If they knew what I was going through, how incredibly painful that this was … then I feel like I’ve done my job as a human on this earth.”
Bonnen bristled at the governor’s criticism of his bill and said it was offensive that Perry used cancer patients to make his point.
“We should not and are now not going to offer the 165,000 11-year-olds in Texas up to be the study group for Merck to find out what the implications of this vaccine would be for these girls,” he said.
The HPV vaccine bill is HB1098.