Texas Gov., Lawmakers in Vaccine Dispute

The Associated Press
Wednesday, February 7, 2007; 11:24 PM

AUSTIN, Texas -- Gov. Rick Perry's office acknowledged Wednesday that legislators hold the power to override his controversial order that schoolgirls be inoculated against the virus that causes cervical cancer, but said any solution they offer should address the disease.

Opponents of the order have argued that legislators should have heard from doctors, scientists and patients before the state implemented the requirement, and some Republican lawmakers have already filed bills to override the order.

Lawmakers are welcome to try to bar the requirement, said Perry spokesman Robert Black. Some lawmakers have said that any legislation they pass on the issue would trump the governor's order _ an argument Black agreed with.

"If the Legislature feels strongly one way or another about preventing cancer in young women ... they should act on it," Black said.

Perry's order Friday required the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to adopt rules requiring the Merck & Co.'s new Gardasil vaccine for girls entering the sixth grade as of September 2008. The vaccine protects girls against strains of the human papillomavirus, or HPV, that cause most cases of cervical cancer.

Conservatives say the order contradicts Texas' abstinence-only sex education policies and intrudes on families. They also balk at the $360 cost for the three-shot series and said Gardasil is too new to force on girls as young as 11 and 12.

Parents can elect to avoid the vaccine by outlining their religious or philosophical objections. But several lawmakers said they would prefer a program in which parents opt in instead of opting out.

Perry firmly defended his actions in his State of the State speech on Tuesday, saying "If I err, I will err on the side of protecting life."

State Sen. Jane Nelson asked Attorney General Greg Abbott on Wednesday for a ruling on the order's legality and guidance on legislative recourse. She did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, a Republican who filed a bill to override the order, said his research backs Black's interpretation of the law.

"Sometimes you have to deal with what the rules of the game are, and in this situation it sounds like the rules of the game may not favor the executive order," he said.

Merck is bankrolling efforts to pass state laws requiring the Gardasil vaccine for girls across the country, funneling money through Women in Government, an advocacy group made up of female state legislators nationwide. Perry has ties to both.

One of the drug company's three lobbyists in Texas is Mike Toomey, Perry's former chief of staff. His current chief of staff's mother-in-law, Texas Republican state Rep. Dianne White Delisi, is a state director of Women in Government.

© 2007 The Associated Press