Perry takes heat at GOP debate for HPV vaccine policy

Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during a Republican presidential candidate debate at the Reagan Library Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, in Simi Valley, Calif.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Rick Perry, GOP debate
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Making his debate debut as a Republican presidential contender, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was stuck on the hot seat Wednesday night as his GOP opponents questioned a controversial health policy he enacted as governor.

In 2007, Perry issued an executive order making Texas the first state to require schoolgirls to get vaccinated against HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer. The executive order faced fierce opposition from conservatives, and the Texas state legislature voted to overturn it.

Earlier in the day, Rep. Ron Paul, another presidential contender, put out a press release blasting Perry's executive order. He continued to assail Perry for the policy at Wednesday night's debate.

"Forcing 12-year-old girls to take an inoculation to prevent this sexually transmitted disease, this is not good medicine... It's not good social policy," Paul said.

What's worse, the congressman said, was that Perry enacted the rule through executive order. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum agreed, saying he was "offended" as a parent that the government would tell him to vaccinate his children.

"And by an executive order, without even going through the process of letting the people have any kind of input," he said. "I would expect this from President Obama; I would not expect this from someone who's calling himself a conservative governor."

Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota chimed in that the executive order imposed on parental rights.

Remarking that he felt "like the pinata here at the party," Perry did his best to defend the policy while acknowledging it wasn't carried out in the best way. He pointed out that parents could opt out of the requirement, remarking, "I don't know what's more strong for parental rights than having that opt-out."

He also said it was part of a larger initiative to lower cancer rates in his state.

"I hate cancer," Perry said. "Cervical cancer is caused by HPV. We wanted to bring that to the attention of these tens of thousands of young people in our state."

Perry said he probably should have talked to the legislature first before issuing the rule. However, he added, "At the end of the day, I will always err on the side of saving lives."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Perry's biggest sparring partner of the evening, cut Perry some slack, remarking, "We've each taken a mulligan or two."

"I agree with those who said he went about it in the wrong way, but I think his heart was in the right place," he said.

More from the debate:

Mitt Romney, Rick Perry spar at GOP debate
Ron Paul references "sexual activities" by TSA
Perry: Yes, Social Security a Ponzi scheme
Perry: I don't lose sleep over Texas executions