Christian conservatives are leading criticism of a Feb. 3 executive order by Texas Gov. Rick Perry requiring sixth-grade schoolgirls to get vaccinated for a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.

Although health officials say a vaccine against human papillomavirus could prevent thousands of women’s deaths each year, pro-family groups argue vaccination could send a message to young girls that it is safe to have premarital sex.

To be effective, the vaccine must be administered before a girl becomes sexually active. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends vaccination for girls ages 11 and 12.

“The governor’s action seems to signify that God’s moral law regarding sex outside of marriage can be transgressed without consequence,” Vision America President Rick Scarborough said in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Scarborough, a Southern Baptist preacher, spearheaded an online petition drive opposing the mandate. While there is nothing wrong with a vaccine preventing cervical cancer, it says, parents, and not the state, should be the ultimate decider of their children’s health care.

A new group called the “Hands Off Our Kids Coalition” includes Parents Requesting Open Vaccine Education (PROVE), the Texas Legal Foundation, Texas Eagle Forum and former U.S. Congressman Bob Barr.

Opponents say there is no proof the HPV vaccine will prevent cervical cancer and cite safety concerns.

The CDC says the vaccine is highly effective in preventing four types of HPV in young women. It targets virus types that cause up to 70 percent of all cervical cancers and about 90 percent of genital warts.

The FDA has licensed the vaccine as safe and effective. It has been tested in thousands of females around the world with no serious side effects.

Advocates for comprehensive sex education and women’s reproductive and sexual health support the governor’s plan. The Austin American-Statesman termed Perry’s order a “bold move.” The New York Times said, “Other states would be wise to follow.”

Perry, a conservative Christian who counts on the religious right for his political base, says the cervical cancer vaccine is no different from one that protects children against polio.

Perry has ties to Merck, the company that manufactures the drug. According to the Associated Press, Merck is bankrolling efforts to pass state laws across the country mandating Gardasil for girls as young as 11 or 12. It doubled its lobbying budget in Texas.

At $360 for a three-shot regimen, the AP reported, the New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company could earn billions if the vaccine were made mandatory across the country.

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 has ties to Women in Government, an advocacy group that receives funding from Merck. Merck gave $6,000 to the governor’s re-election campaign in 2006.

Perry said parents who do not want their daughters to receive an HPV vaccine “for reasons of conscience, including religious beliefs,” will be able to opt out of the requirement.

Scarborough said the opt-out procedure is cumbersome and private and parochial schools do not have to honor the exemptions. Parents who choose to opt out, he warned, may also find their pediatricians refusing to continue providing care.

Perry’s order doesn’t take effect until September 2008, but girls and women ages nine to 21 eligible for public assistance will be able to receive Gardasil at no cost beginning immediately.

A spokesperson for Perry said the state would increase funding for existing health programs by $29.4 million annually to help cover the cost of the vaccine for low-income women and girls.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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