Political candidates say all kinds of crazy things on the stump. Sometimes they repeat rumor as fact, sometimes they make stuff up, sometimes they exaggerate. You try to cut them some slack, because it's wise to pick your battles, because none of them is immune to it, because having a camera or microphone shoved in your face recording every word is no picnic.

Political candidates say all kinds of crazy things on the stump. Sometimes they repeat rumor as fact, sometimes they make stuff up, sometimes they exaggerate. You try to cut them some slack, because it's wise to pick your battles, because none of them is immune to it, because having a camera or microphone shoved in your face recording every word is no picnic.


But sometimes they commit a real doozy that, left unchallenged, can get out of hand, with consequences that can prove quite regrettable.


Case in point is Minnesota congresswoman, tea party darling and GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who during and after a recent debate, expressed her opposition to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine for pre-adolescent girls, calling it "a very dangerous drug" and linking it to "mental retardation," reportedly because some mother in Tampa, Fla., told her so.


Doctors and their organizations across the country immediately condemned Bachmann's comments as inaccurate, irresponsible, even dangerous. That's because HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection, can cause cervical cancer - plus a few others, impacting males as well - which affects 12,000 women and kills about 4,000 of them annually in the United States. This vaccine can prevent that suffering. Though no immunization is risk-free, unlike Bachmann, the Institute of Medicine has found it generally safe. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have endorsed its use. The Food and Drug Administration and the CDC have reported no incidents of brain injury from injection of the HPV vaccines Gardasil (35 million doses) and Cervarix. The National Catholic Bioethics Center, which normally frowns on anything that might appear to condone youthful or premarital sexual activity, finds the vaccine's use "morally acceptable."


Mistakes on the campaign trail are inevitable. Sensible, ethical candidates quickly recognize their error, apologize soon thereafter, concede they were wrong - as all human beings are occasionally - and try to correct or limit the damage, to themselves and more importantly to others. And that's what Bachmann should have done.


Alas, to date she has not been able to bring herself to say "I'm sorry" or admit her facts were off, even with lives at stake, beyond acknowledging that "I am not a doctor, I am not a scientist." If the original faux pas was unintentional, and therefore forgivable, her failure to 'fess up, given her knowledge now and the public health implications, is the opposite.


It's one thing to insist the vaccine should be a parental decision, not the government's. It's one thing to have concerns about the age of those who get it - it's usually administered to 11- and 12-year-olds because it doesn't work after the person has been exposed to the virus through sexual contact (not just intercourse), though it could just as easily be given to children much younger. It's one thing to try to differentiate yourself from a fellow contender - in this case Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who in 2007 mandated the vaccine for sixth-grade girls in his state, with an opt-out provision for parents, by executive order - and to question his method and motivation in doing so, specifically the campaign donations he received from the drug manufacturer wanting the business.


Instead Bachmann went the fear-mongering, science-is-bad route. Her former campaign manager, Ed Rollins, says she flubbed it. Even conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh took her to task.


Again, no candidate survives a campaign without a stumble. Nonetheless, slip-ups like these can be very revealing. How do the candidates process information and think on their feet? From whom do they take counsel? How much effort do they put into substantiating what they hear? Do they exercise good judgment, or do they wield the information recklessly? Do they have the character to concede fault and accept accountability when it belongs to them? Is it indicative of how they might behave in the future?


Bachmann wants to be president of the United States. Americans and others tend to take what the president says seriously. Now some medical professionals fear public acceptance of the potentially life-saving innoculation, already hampered by its reputation as the "sex vaccine" and the paranoia over immunizations in general, could be set back. Bachmann has not done her candidacy any favors, which should be the least of her concerns.


Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.