I generally am willing to allow political candidates considerable leeway on what they say or promise during a campaign. We all know something about the value of political promises. Nonetheless there must be limits on what candidates can be allowed to pronounce. I believe Michele Bachmann has dangerously exceeded those limits.
During a recent debate by the potential Republican candidates, she suggested that the vaccine against human papilloma virus, which causes cervical cancer in infected women, was dangerous. She later cited for reporters the story told her by an anonymous woman in her audience, that the vaccine had caused mental retardation in the woman's daughter. When challenged, she said that she was not a doctor or a scientist, but did not repudiate her earlier claims.
measles and autism in children. There is no support for such an idea, but the pronouncement of that possibility by a physician citing fraudulent research, set back measles inoculations in small children. Many parents became fearful and did not inoculate their children. The outcome was a minor epidemic of measles last year: many more cases than in previous years.
The cervical cancer caused by human papilloma virus (HPV) may not appear until 20 years after infection. And the vaccine is only effective if given BEFORE exposure to the virus. HPV is sexually transmitted and thus the vaccine must be given before the initiation of sexual activity by the young woman.
It could, in fact, be given to much younger children with equal success. The association of the virus infection with sexual activity seems to be one of the reasons that Mrs. Bachmann and others find it easy to suggest problems. Our society is often less than comfortable with the idea of humans as sexual beings.
Representative Bachmann has most probably set back the use of HPV vaccine by three or four years. In the U.S. there are 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer each year and 4,000 deaths annually. It is possible to make the case that Mrs. Backmann's irresponsible language will have caused thousands of cervical cancer deaths 20 years down the road.
Free speech is not completely without limits. The U.S. Supreme Court has suggested that the freedom of speech does not include the right to shout ''fire'' in a crowded theater. I take that to mean that if one's exercise of free speech is likely to cause the death or injury of many other people, it is not constitutionally protected.
Pronouncing publicly that a potentially life-saving vaccine is "dangerous" and "leads to mental retardation," is perilously close to shouting ''fire'' in the crowded theater that we all inhabit.
Mrs. Bachmann's statements in pursuit of a political advantage are at the very least irresponsible, and approach criminal. There really ought to be some sort of public consequences for the careless use of such weighty pronouncements. At the very least Bachmann should lose status as a presidential candidate. As should any other candidate or celebrity who uses their public position to pronounce truly dangerous notions. Irresponsible speech from a major public figure should not be tolerated.