AUSTIN, Texas – The Texas House gave final approval on Wednesday to a bill blocking state officials from following Gov. Rick Perry's order that schoolgirls be inoculated against the virus that causes cervical cancer.
The 118-23 vote is a slap to the Republican governor, whose executive order last month angered lawmakers from both parties and alienated much of his social conservative base.
The measure now moves to the Senate, where an identical bill is being co-sponsored by half of the 31 members.
Perry has passionately defended his order directing state health officials to require the human papillomavirus vaccine for girls starting sixth grade as of September 2008.
The vaccine, Merck & Co.'s Gardasil, protects girls and women against strains of the sexually transmitted virus that cause most cases of cervical cancer and genital warts.
"I do not understand why we as a people would not take this opportunity to use this vaccine ... to the benefit of our children," Perry said late last month.
But lawmakers were outraged that Perry bypassed the legislative process and immediately raised concerns about the safety, efficacy and cost of the three-shot vaccine series. Many social conservatives also argued that parents, not politicians, should decide what inoculations children need.
Critics had even more questions after reports surfaced that a close Perry ally lobbies for Merck and that the drug company had contributed to the governor's re-election campaign the same day his staff met to discuss the vaccine.
Perry's order did not carry the weight of law and state health officials were not required to follow it, according to two influential lawmakers who received an informal opinion from Attorney General Greg Abbott.
Still, the Legislature was moving forward with the bill approved Wednesday because current law allows the head of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to add vaccines without legislative approval.
"If we're going to make such a significant choice for 11-year-olds in Texas, I think it should be a choice made by a large number of elected officials," said Republican Rep. Dennis Bonnen of Angleton, the lead author of the bill.
Democratic State Rep. Jessica Farrar, who supports an HPV vaccine mandate, said she voted against the bill because she fears it will prevent the state's health and human services chief from ever requiring the shots.
"We did have the opportunity just to ... rescind that executive order but now we are tying the hands of the health commissioner," she said.
The House also tentatively approved a bill on Wednesday that would direct state health officials to create and distribute brochures about the virus and the vaccine.