Michele Bachmann Just As Completely, Totally Wrong About Vaccines As Everything Else

A couple of days ago Representative Michele Bachmann made a completely incorrect, false, wrong, bogus and detrimental claim on the Today Show that vaccines against HPV can have “very serious side effects” including “mental retardation.”


Just for funsies, let’s watch the clips of Bachmann’s comments via The Daily Show.

Before I continue, let me be very clear. Actually, let the CDC be very clear:

All vaccines used in the United States are required to go through years of extensive safety testing before they are licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Once in use, they are continually monitored for their safety and effectiveness.

There are two human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix. These vaccines are available to protect females against the two HPV types that cause most cervical cancers. Gardasil was studied in more than 29,000 males and females, and Cervarix was studied in over 30,000 females during clinical trials. Cervarix had been in use outside of the U.S. prior to licensing by the FDA.

Let’s start chronologically. Bachmann’s seemingly anti-immunization rhetoric actually started during the Republican Debate. “To have innocent little twelve year old girls be forced to have a government injection is just flat out wrong,” she said. “I’m offended for all the little girls and parents that didn’t have a choice.” Bachmann’s use of the phrase “government injection” makes the HPV vaccine sound much more invasive than it really is. The HPV vaccines are literally just three shots in the upper arm. It does not violate “little girls.”

Not only do I take serious issue with referring to adolescents and preadolescents as “little girls,” I want to point out that the CDC recommends the HPV vaccine at ages 11 or 12 specifically because “this is the age at which the vaccine produces the best immune response in the body, and because it’s important to protect girls well before the onset of sexual activity.” This isn’t some big plot to encourage teenagers to start having sex (which, by the way, they will regardless). Requiring immunization, like public schools do in all 50 states including Bachmann’s state of Minnesota, does not subvert parenting. Requiring immunization (from all sorts of illnesses) prevents deaths.


I recognize that Bachmann’s intent may have been to highlight that Governor Rick Perry’s decision to mandate the HPV vaccine for all twelve-year-old girls was influenced by his political connection to Merck, the makers of Gardasil. It’s true that Merck has made large donations to Perry’s campaign. But there’s no reason for Bachmann to blame the vaccine as opposed to Perry’s questionable motives.

If you watched the above video, you know that Bachmann took her anti-immunization rhetoric a step further on the Today Show, claiming that a mother told her that Gardasil caused mental retardation in her daughter. While Bachmann didn’t technically say, “watch out everyone, the HPV vaccines is going to cause cognitive regression in your daughters,” she did indeed infer that this completely incorrect, false, wrong, bogus and detrimental claim was true. Since no one can disprove her anecdote — who’s to say a mother didn’t come up to her and tell that story? — Bachmann’s comments could very easily create unfounded concern amongst parents. Even if Bachmann really did have this encounter and heard such a story, I’m surprised that she could not recognize that sometimes two incidents occur that are not causal. For instance, a child could conceivably have a vaccine and also a developmental disability and they could be completely unrelated. 

Refusing to backtrack, Bachmann insists that she wasn’t attesting to the accuracy of the statements about the vaccine, simply passing on what she had heard. “I wasn’t speaking as a doctor. I wasn’t speaking as a scientist, I was merely passing on… what I had heard.” This doesn’t excuse Bachmann’s behavior. As a current congresswoman and a political candidate, she should recognize that her words will be assumed true by millions of viewers who might not hear the redaction. Also, as a congresswoman and a political candidate, she should recognize that she isn’t a medical professional, and as such should maybe leave the sweeping statements about potentially lifesaving (and harmless!) medical procedures to people who are.


As both the New York Times and Jezebel have already explained, these sorts of completely incorrect, false, wrong, bogus and detrimental claims about vaccines can have a real lasting impact on public health. Professor Gregory Zimet, co-leader of the cancer control program at Indiana University pointed out to The Guardian that “[part] of the issue will be how long the discussion is prominent in the news. If this is brought up every time the Republican candidates have a debate, if misinformation is repeatedly expressed and covered nationally, it can have a negative effect.” (Yes, I recognize I am part of this media bringing this up.)

This sentiment was echoed by pediatric professor and committee on infectious diseases of the American Academy of Pediatrics member Dr. Rodney E. Willoughby. In the New York Times, Willoughby points out, “These things always set you back about three years, which is exactly what we can’t afford.”  HPV vaccination rates are already lower than desired. According to the CDC, in 2010 only 49% of girls ages 13-17 received the first dose of the vaccine, with only 32% receiving all three. Zimet explains, “From the public health point of view that is inadequate… when you have a vaccine that likely prevents around 70% of cervical cancers, but fewer than half of girls are receiving all three doses, the ultimate effect is dampened.”

To make matters worse, Bachmann’s comments come at a time when parents are increasingly opting out of vaccinating their children despite continuous research indicating there is very little risk associated with vaccines. The Institute of Medicine reported that “there was enough evidence to reject outright any links between immunizations and certain more serious health conditions including autism, Type 1 diabetes, asthma, and Bell’s palsy.” Somehow, even without scientific basis, vaccine stigma remains. It’s comments like Bachmann’s that allow this proliferation of myths and lies about vaccines that have been around since the first smallpox vaccine. Regardless of my political alignment, it is my opinion that Bachmann’s willingness to undermine public health efforts without any scientific evidence purely for political reasons indicates a serious deficit of ethical character.


It should be noted that there are some mild side effects for all types of vaccinations. For the HPV vaccination, this includes pain at the injection site, headache, nausea, fever or fainting. The CDC lays out the side effects of different children’s vaccines pretty clearly, and obviously anyone with a preexisting condition should talk to their doctor (but it’s not like you’re all going to be going out and vaccinating yourself at home without a doctor anyway).

I could dwell on said myths about vaccines and explain how each one lacks scientific basis. Unfortunately misleading health information is so permeating that I would likely end up continuing the reporting of inaccurate information instead of convincing anyone to the contrary. Instead, I encourage you to vaccinate yourself and those children you fought so hard to raise/adopt/second parent adopt/create an accepting community for. Immunization saves lives. It truly does.

In order to combat the permeating lies, I leave you with some truths about vaccines and the illnesses they prevent (most verbatim from the CDC’s report on childhood vaccinations or HPV):


+The HPV vaccines prevent about 70% of cervical cancers.
+In addition to cervical cancer, HPV can also cause vaginal, vulvar and penile cancer.
+If measles vaccinations were stopped, each year about 2.7 million measles deaths worldwide could be expected. As many as three of every 1,000 persons with measles will die in the U.S.
+Measles is so contagious, 96% of the population must be vaccinated to secure herd immunity.
+Hib meningitis (Haemophilus Influenzae Type b Meningitis) once killed 600 children each year and left many survivors deaf, experiencing seizures, or mentally retarded. Since introduction of the conjugate Hib vaccine in December 1987, the incidence of Hib has declined by 98%.
+In infants, Pertussis (Whooping Cough) can cause pneumonia and lead to brain damage, seizures, and mental retardation. Of the 181 persons who died from pertussis from 2000-2008, 166 of these were less than six months old.
+Before pneumococcal conjugate vaccine became available for children, pneumococcus caused 63,000 cases of invasive pneumococcal disease and 6,100 deaths in the U.S. each year.
+Approximately 25 percent of children who become infected with life-long hepatitis B virus would be expected to die of related liver disease as adults.
+In the US in 1921, a total of 206,000 diphtheria cases and 15,520 diphtheria deaths were reported.
+Approximately 20% of reported cases of tetanus end in death.
+Before the mumps vaccine was introduced, mumps was a major cause of deafness in children

If you want to hear more on this issue, I suggest you hear it from a woman much smarter than I. Oh yeah, and get your goddamn flu shot.

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Lizz is a consumer, lover and writer of all things pop culture and the Fashion/Style Editor at Autostraddle.com. She is also full time medical student at Brown University in Providence, RI. You can find her on the twitter, the tumblr or even on the instagram.

Lizz has written 261 articles for us.


  1. i’m so happy michele is finally getting called out for her anti-fact arguments.
    however, the thing about the HPV vaccine is that it’s only effective for 5 years, according to Dr. Diane Harper (the person who was in charge of research for the vaccine). so i found it a little disturbing that the NY Times/Jezebel reported that the vaccine could be administered at “5 or 6 or even birth”. if those kids aren’t sexually active by the time they’re 10 or 11, the vaccine gives them zero benefit, only the (rare, but real) chance of having a severe neurological reaction.
    i’m absolutely not trying to propogate any myths, but there is a considerable amount of misinformation on both sides of the spectrum, especially about the HPV vaccine. Dr. Harper did an interview with HuffPost that i found cleared up a lot of things on this issue:
    yay science!

    • I dunno about 5 years, the CDC has this on their site:

      “How long does vaccine protection last?

      Research suggests that vaccine protection is long-lasting. Current studies (with up to about six years of follow-up data) indicate that the vaccines are effective, with no evidence of decreasing immunity.”

      At any rate, if the vaccine only worked for 5 years, and you gave it to an 12 year old, you’d think doctors would re-administer the vaccine to teens at 17– and that’s not quite what happens.

      • ah okay, the interview i read was from 2009, so that makes sense.
        but that’s what i mean about misinformation, or at least a lack of readily available information; if Gardasil is only proven effective for ~6 years, why isn’t there more emphasis on having the vaccine re-administered, or at least on having your immunity checked? and why is it being recommended for 5 year olds/newborns when there is no proof that it will still be effective by the time they are sexually active?
        Dr. Harper in the 2009 interview: “If Gardasil is given to 11 year olds, and the vaccine does not last at least fifteen years, then there is no benefit – and only risk – for the young girl.” i really recommend reading it.
        she also did this interview in feb 2011: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=th8GXxQpe6U

        i don’t mean to come off as anti-vaccine because i’m not, but i really feel strongly about people having access to information about the healthcare they receive, and i think that the discrepancies between what the CDC says and what the vaccine researcher says is cause for concern.

        • maybe there just isn’t enough data on how long Gardasil lasts because the release was in 2006.

          From Wikipedia:
          The National Cancer Institute says, “Studies have shown that both Gardasil and Cervarix prevent nearly 100 percent of the precancerous cervical cell changes caused by the types of HPV targeted by the vaccine for up to 4 years after vaccination among women who were not infected at the time of vaccination.” The vaccine is believed to be effective for longer, but for how long, and whether a booster shot will be needed is still being studied.

          Sooo yeah, I guess booster shots are in the works, and they’re still testing how long the vaccine lasts, which looks like its longer than 4 years, but aren’t 100% sure yet.

          • exactly! so why is this doctor in the new york times trying to say that it’s appropriate for newborns to receive it when there is no evidence that it will last long enough to give them any benefit, and while there is still the chance of a serious adverse reaction? i mean, Bachmann is obviously full of shit, but from my understanding of the vaccine Dr. Willoughby is making some pretty questionable statements as well.

  2. I have to wonder if the Republican Party is actively trying to ensure that a woman never becomes president by burning first Palin and now this hot mess into the minds of voters.

  3. Bachmann is my favorite source for comedy hour. The bitch is completely out to lunch. Its so bad, its fantastic.

  4. Ahh, yes, back to the whole “what about the parents’ choice!” argument. It’s so fucking ironic that all these Tea Baggers care about is keeping “choices” as a federal thing, yet are so fiercely against the biggest choice of all: women’s control over our own bodies.

    • But that logic applied to abortion would mean that it’s a-ok, which it definitely isn’t in these people’s minds.

  5. Okay, so I guess I’m going to be the jerk here who sides with Bauchman even though that is literally my worst nightmare.

    Gardasil only began its clinical trials in 2006, which means we only know the side effects on humans for five years down the line… and while most of the population has seemed to take the vaccine well, there have been some bad reactions in people that were directly linked to Gardasil.

    In comparison, the measles vaccine has been around since 1963. After seeing the vaccination’s first generation to the end of their lifetime, we know all of the long-term effects.

    And not only is the HPV vaccine new, it is also completely different from the measles vaccination. You don’t contract HPV from coughing on someone, it is a lifestyle disease that can definitely be prevented. There just isn’t going to be a rampant outbreak of HPV.

    Did Michelle Bauchman say something dumb? Yes. The HPV vaccine has never been linked to mental retardation. But does the vaccine come with significant unknown risk? Absolutely.

    In all, I think it is pharmaceutical companies making lots of money by advertising this as a public health initiative. (3 injections * every school child in a state where it is required=$$$$$$$$)

    I agree that the other required vaccines like MMRV are super important, but I held off getting the HPV vaccine even though it was 5x as much paperwork for my school’s health services. Maybe in 50 years it will turn out that the vaccine is totally fine, but for now I’ll just put myself in the low-risk group the old fashioned way: safe sex, regular gyno visits, etc.

    • Um … HPV is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact – you can still get it even if you use protection. The only way it can “definitely be prevented” is to abstain from sex.

      As for there not being a rampant outbreak, the American CDC estimates that at least 50% of sexually active people will get HPV at some point in their lives, 20 million Americans have it now, and 6 million Americans get infected with HPV each year.

      • the National Cancer Institute says that most genital HPV infections occur without any symptoms and go away without treatment after a few years. the strains that cause cancer are much more uncommon. so 20 million infected with HPV is not the same as an outbreak of measles, etc. wording is tricky.

        • No, but a percentage of that will get cancer. And then with 6 million more infections, that number with cancer keeps climbing. It can easily get out of hand. Especially since those people with just genital HPV infections who may get rid of the infection naturally within years can infect all of their sexual partners who may be more susceptible.

          • Agreed. I would say we are already in an epidemic. Also, HPV can be extremely stigmatizing regardless of symptoms. If you get diagnosed with HPV, you’re probably going to feel like you can’t have sex for two years since you can pass it even with condoms.

    • I disagree strongly with the “lifestyle” choice. I’m actually kind of offended, since my mom had cervical cancer and she’s only been with my dad. I had to get Gardasil simply because of this [the cervical cancer family history], and my “lifestyle” also includes monogamy with only one partner.

      And p.s. You can get any horrible disease by sleeping with only one person if it’s the wrong person.

    • The statement, “Gardasil only began its clinical trials in 2006” is not accurate. Gardasil has been licensed and available since 2006. The trials began years before 2006. So, it is not really a “new” vaccine. HPV vaccine is most similar to hepatitis B vaccine. Protection conferred by hepatitis B vaccine lasts for at least 2 decades. There is no reason to assume that HPV vaccine will not last as long. The only substantive issue here is that Perry did an end run around the Texas legislature and was likely unduly influenced in this decision by Merck. The problem is not HPV vaccine, which we should be celebrating as a way to protect women and men from cancer (and, in the case of Gardasil, from genital warts). The problem is that Perry is a corrupt politician.

  6. Fair warning, when you get the injection of the HPV vaccine, it feels like someone punched you in the arm. None of my other injections have ever felt like that.

    • That’s a bummer– I think you probably have a less-than-awesome nurse administering it. Mine were very similar to tetanus.

      • Less-than-awesome nurse could be true, but I believe I had a different nurse each time. Ah well. All the nurses told me to shake my arm afterwards and it was funny because the patient before me was shaking her arm too.

    • I think it depends even on how tensed you are. I mean every year I take the vaccine against flu and my arm hurts every year, while my father’s one never hurts. Since the only difference is that I have/had needle phobia and he doesn’t I think that it depends on how contracted you are. Either way smile, my best friend faint after vaccine, which is waay worse :)

      • Haha, I’m glad I’ve never fainted from an injection. I don’t consider myself to have needle phobia, as I have multiple piercings and tats, so getting vaccinated wasn’t anxiety inducing for me. Although I could have been subconsciously tensing. Who knows? I got vaccinated back in 2007, so the only thing that really sticks out in my mind was the unexpected pain I experienced.

      • This wasn’t my experience at all, and I suspect it has to do with tensing muscles before the shot. Although I guess everyone reacts differently to pain/harm/shots. I sort of think getting blood drawn is painless. But either way it’s better than getting HPV.

    • Ah, fortunately that wasn’t my experience with the meningitis vaccine, I remember it was completely uneventful. Of course reactions to vaccinations will vary among people but I remember talking to my friends who started their Gardasil vaccinations and the general consensus being that it felt like a punch in the arm when you got the injection. Unfortunately, that deterred some of my friends from going back to getting the 2nd and 3rd shot.

  7. Bachmann said nothing wrong.
    The dishonest people are the ones trying to twist what she said in order the hide the facts
    She is against “crony-capitalism” and Government violation of people’s freedom – so whether vacines are safe or not is NOT the issue. The attackers are misleading in order to hide the issues.
    The Drug companies and FDA ane even doctors do not always tell the truth. I know doctors who would not take any medicine themselves because they know the side effects that are not publicised.

    • If it wasn’t the issue, then why does she just happen to throw in comments about side effects, etc.? If she’s against violation of freedom, she should just say that and then shut up.

      And in any case, people who want vaccines to be mandatory don’t want to violate freedoms, they just recognize that certain things don’t need to be left up to choice. There are people who have died because someone else’s parents didn’t want to vaccinate them, and they were susceptible. Being in medical school myself and going into infectious disease and having done research myself, I can tell you there are ridiculous amounts of work and research done before these products are out on the market. And Bachmann isn’t just against the HPV vaccine being mandatory, she dislikes mandatory vaccines at all. Such as the ones mentioned above that could lead to deaths in other people.

      People aren’t just choosing something for their own children when they choose to vaccinate their children or not; they can potentially be choosing the infection, disease, sickness, and potentially death of others. That’s why sometimes people need to stop getting so hung up on what they perceive to be infringements on “personal freedoms.” There’s a bigger picture.

      Also, if you go into any pharmacy or research extensively, there is literally no side effect of a medication that is not published somewhere. I work in a pharmacy. That’s not an opinion, that’s just the way it is. For any given drug, there are pages of side effects and contraindications, etc.

      • Also parent’s are making a really big choice on their child’s behalf when they choose not to get them vaccinated. It’s that kid who’s going to suffer the consequences of preventable diseases.

  8. “I wasn’t speaking as a doctor. I wasn’t speaking as a scientist, I was merely passing on… what I had heard.” That makes her look even more stupid. If you have no competence on the subject you don’t talk about it. There is no “but” there is only you talked without knowing what you were saying and you said something completely wrong and harmful for people. And the whole “you shouldn’t oblige” thing is wrong too, in my opinion. I mean so let’s not give vaccines against polio so we can test if we can create other epidemies and have people paralyzed because stupid parents decided not to protect their children.

  9. The problem with not getting vaccinated is that you’re not only putting yourself at risk for contracting these diseases, but you’re also putting everyone around you at risk. It’s called Herd Immunity and it’s the reason we no longer have diseases such as smallpox in the U.S. anymore.

    Sure, you may have an awesome immune system so that when you come into contact with the flu nothing really happens to you, but not everyone will be as fortunate. So when Lizz says to get your flu shot, GET YOUR FLU SHOT.

    • I think the problem is that people don’t realize that it takes like 96% of the population to be vaccinated before there’s herd immunity.

  10. I think the scary thing about this whole ‘freedom to choose not to vaccinate your kids’ is that by refusing to vaccinate yourself or your kids, you are endangering other people from catching these diseases that you insist on not vaccinating against. In my opinion, refusing to vaccinate your children is one of the most selfish things you can do.

    Take measles for example: In the UK, there used to be herd immunity. However, the last few years there have been so many people refusing to vaccinate their children due to that rumor of the MMR vaccine causing autism that there are now measles outbreaks occurring again.

    Another thing: Not everyone can take these vaccines due to allergies and other things. My mom, who is now 62 years old, have only ever gotten 2 vaccines in her life. When she was a child she couldn’t get vaccinated due to most vaccines being inoculated in eggs and she is so allergic to eggs she would go into anaphylaxic shock. However, because other people have vaccinated themselves and created herd immunity, the risk of her getting infected by polio etc. has been minimized so much that she’s been able to stay healthy.

  11. I totally agree that teenagers are more worried about getting pregnant. I do disagree though that adolescence barely know HPV exists. I think in terms of stds, HPV, HIV and herpes are probably the ones young people worry about the most.

  12. I have been researching this vaccine since Feb. of 2007 and I can tell you in all honesty that this vaccine scientifically has problems. Aluminum which is the adjuvant is a definite neurotoxin. SPI Pharma, Inc.had this to say “Accumulation of aluminum in the body may result in neurological damage, anemia and bone softening.” Polysorbate 80 The National Toxicology Program by the Department of Health and Human Services has information about testing for Toxicity Effects “potent cardiac depressant” “a coronary vasodilatory effect” “there was equivocal evidence of carcinogenicity” “showed 40% incidence of metastasis”. The European Chemicals Agency had a lot to say about Sodium borate. “as toxic for reproduction category 27, R60-61 (May impair fertility. May cause harm to the unborn child).” “Repr. 1B; H360-FD (May damage fertility. May damage the unborn child)” It amazes me that people are still led to believe that it is safe. How on God’s green earth can it be safe?

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