Months after the Texas state legislature revoked [his executive order requiring young girls receive the HPV vaccine, Governor Rick] Perry expressed in very personal terms the potential the HPV vaccine holds for preventing cervical cancer in young women. Perry spoke of the missed opportunity of the Texas government at a memorial service for Heather Burcham, a 31-year-old woman who died from cervical cancer after contracting HPV.
“Though some could not see the benefits of the HPV vaccine through the prism of politics, some day they will,” Perry said in July 2007. “Someday they will recognize that this could happen to anyone’s daughter, even their own. Someday they will respond with compassion when they once responded with ignorance. And, someday, they will come to a place where they recognize the paramount issue is whether we will choose life, and protect life, without regard to what mistakes, if any, have been made in the past.”It's important to note that Perry's decision to use an executive order to impose the vaccine requirement — which he now calls a mistake — did not come as a result of his experience knowing Burcham. He met her after that happened. I would criticize him if he was the sort of executive decisionmaker who reacts to the vivid story of one victim. How effective is the solution you're adopting? How does it affect everyone that your imposing it on? How many other victims are likely to be spared? You have to look at the big whole picture if you're making policy, and you can't have the sort of mind that fixates on one person, feels deep empathy, and wields governmental power to do something... right now.
Perry and Burcham, a teacher from Houston, Texas, struck up an unusual friendship in the months after he issued his executive order.... Despite the legislature’s decision to revoke the executive order, Perry befriended Burcham. In the final months of her life, the two took a motorcycle ride together and spent a weekend at a ranch with her friends at the governor’s invitation.
In the final days before her death, Perry even sat at her deathbed, a moment he has described on the campaign trail. ”I sat on the side of a bed of a young lady, and she was dying from cervical cancer, and it had an impact on me.”
In fact, Perry showed a propensity to think about matters at a higher level of reasoned generality when he was challenged, at the debate, to explain his executive order. I think many politicians, in that situation, would begin with the compelling story of Heather Burcham. He said:
And at the end of the day, this was about trying to stop a cancer and giving the parental option to opt out of that. And at the end of the day, you may criticize me about the way that I went about it, but at the end of the day, I am always going to err on the side of life. And that's what this was really all about for me.Life. He could have said: This is about Heather Burcham. Let me tell you about Heather Burcham... I can hear Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or any number of other highly successful politics moving smoothly into that line of persuasion. Maybe Perry is just less slick, less smart. But I think it's interesting that he doesn't seem have the instinct for anecdotal reasoning.
Anecdotal reasoning is a manifestation of the human tendency to weigh the seen over the unseen. Yes, it's a terrible thing that a a 31-year-old woman died from cervical cancer caused by HPV. If she were dying right in front of you, maybe you would think, I swear I will do anything in my power to express my outrage at her death, but a mind that gets stuck in that mode can't be trusted making broad policy decisions and imposing requirements on all of us.
Consider Michele Bachmann, who famously emoted: "There’s a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine... She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result. There are very dangerous consequences."
Well, that's just one instance of how Bachmann's mind processes information. It's the one we're seeing right now. I don't want to overweight one vivid bit of evidence, or I will exemplify the very kind of thinking I am trying to avoid.