Social conservatives have long been opposed to initiatives to combat the human papillomavirus (HPV), which increases a woman’s chances of developing cervical cancer. Merck developed a vaccine that immunizes against HPV infection, and it was approved by the FDA, which led the religious right to fight for restrictions. As the Family Research Council said a while back, the vaccine “could be potentially harmful” to women “because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex.”

Let that one roll around in your brain for a moment.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), at least in 2007, knew better. Indeed, the governor was refreshingly sensible on the matter: “Providing the HPV vaccine doesn’t promote sexual promiscuity any more than the hepatitis B vaccine promotes drug use,” Perry said at the time. “If the medical community developed a vaccine for lung cancer, would the same critics oppose it, claiming it would encourage smoking?”

Now that Perry is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, he’s backed away from his sensible stand. But that’s not quite good enough for Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum who, much to Mitt Romney’s delight, hammered Perry on this in last night’s debate. Indeed, Bachmann even accused the Texas governor of possible corruption.

BACHMANN: I just wanted to add that we cannot forget that in the midst of this executive order there is a big drug company that made millions of dollars because of this mandate. We can’t deny that…. What I’m saying is that it’s wrong for a drug company, because the governor’s former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for this drug company. The drug company gave thousands of dollars in political donations to the governor, and this is just flat-out wrong. The question is, is it about life, or was it about millions of dollars and potentially billions for a drug company?

BLITZER: All right. I’ll let Senator Santorum hold off for a second. You’ve got to respond to that.

PERRY: Yes, sir. The company was Merck, and it was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them. I raise about $30 million. And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.

He certainly didn’t mean it this way, but the answer made it seem as if Perry could be bought, if only the payoff was much greater.

Regardless, this is quickly becoming one of the key issues in the Republican race. Right-wing activists are taking it seriously, and Bachmann even claimed, falsely, in an interview after the debate that the HPV vaccine can lead to mental retardation in girls. There’s no evidence to support this — there’s generally no evidence to support any of Bachmann’s claims — but it will apparently be another far-right area of concern, and an issue for Perry to deal with.

So long as conservatives believe the appropriate penalty for sexual activity is cervical cancer, this will likely remain an important part of the campaign.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.