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In the Sept. 22, 2011, Republican presidential debate, Gov. Rick Perry again defended his foiled 2007 attempt to require Texas girls to be vaccinated against a virus that can cause cervical cancer.
Perry, responding to U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s charge that his Feb. 2, 2007, order intended to mandate the shots for human papillomavirus, or HPV, was an inappropriate result of lobbying by his former chief of staff, said: "I got lobbied on this issue. I got lobbied by a 31-year-old young lady who had stage 4 cervical cancer. I spent a lot of time with her. She came by my office, talked to me about this program."
Did a cancer patient urge Perry to issue the order later nulled by Texas legislators?
Nearly three weeks after Perry issued the order, it was widely reported that a Houston woman with late-stage cervical cancer had visited with him. As reported in the Feb. 20, 2007, Austin American-Statesman, Heather Burcham of Houston spoke to reporters summoned by Perry as numerous legislators were indicating they would try to cancel the order.
Burcham said then: "The vaccine has done its job if it saves one person from cancer, let alone knocks out cervical cancer altogether." She also signed up to testify at a Texas House hearing, the Statesman reported, but left before she was called to speak. Earlier in the day, she said she wanted to spend the time she had left sharing her story: "It's my wildest dream come true that I get to maybe reach one person, that my life would not be in vain, that I have lived for a purpose and that I won't die and never have done anything," she said.
Shortly after the Sept. 22 debate, ABC News said Perry did not meet Burcham until after he’d issued his order. Its news article says Perry "met Burcham while she was lobbying the Texas legislature to uphold the governor’s executive order. The Legislature ultimately ruled against Burcham and Perry and did away with the vaccine mandate."
The network, crediting a recent report by Houston’s KTRK-TV, said Perry and Burcham "struck up a friendship despite the Texas Legislature revoking the governor’s mandate. Perry invited Burcham to a ranch, rode motorcycles with her and even sat at her bed during her final days. Burcham died in July 2007." A pre-debate ABC News post, dated Sept. 15, 2011, specifies that Perry and Burcham struck up the friendship after he issued the order.
According to a Sept. 23, 2011, Houston Chronicle blog post, Perry spokesman Mark Miner confirmed that Burcham met Perry when she began lobbying the lawmakers to uphold his order. The post quotes Miner saying: "It was a very inspirational passionate story that he heard from her and he met with her away from the cameras and really built up a relationship with this young girl. Yes, he had (already) signed it, but it was still going through the legislative process. It had a heavy impact on him."
As noted Sept. 17, 2011, by Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy, Perry’s YouTube posts include a video of Burcham, in a hospital bed, shown at a May 2007 Perry press conference. Seated in a bed, Burcham says: "I want to change as many people’s lives as I can because I know there is nothing I can do for my own life, but there is something that I can do for others ... It is so important that parents get their children this vaccination."
Finally, we interviewed Houston developer Craig Wilson, who said Burcham lived with his family off and on for about a decade before she died. Wilson said he doesn’t recall the exact date that Burcham met Perry, though they developed a relationship when she was urging legislators not to unplug the order. "He did everything he could to make her life better," Wilson said, ultimately spending three hours at her bedside before she died and later delivering a eulogy. "This shows his character as a human being."
Our ruling: Perry had an ally in Heather Burcham in 2007, but only after he issued his order. In the debate, in contrast, Perry brought up Burcham’s heartfelt advocacy while not speaking to criticism he had been lobbied into the order by a former aide representing a drug company. His statement misled by creating the impression Burcham swayed him to proceed with the executive order. In reality, by all accounts, that just didn’t happen.
We rate Perry’s statement False.
ABC News, news articles, "HPV Vaccine: Rick Perry Befriended Dying Woman After Mandate," Sept. 15, 2011; "HPV Vaccine Fact Check: Perry Misstated Relationship With Dying Woman," Sept. 22, 2011
Austin American-Statesman, news article, "91 House members sponsor bill to cancel Perry's HPV mandate," Feb. 20, 2007
The Houston Chronicle, news blog post, "Perry met cancer victim ‘lobbyist’ after signing HPV order," Sept. 23, 2011
Telephone interview, Craig Wilson, Houston, Sept. 23, 2011
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