Saturday, January 4, 2014

Jenny McCarthy, Autism & The Damage Done

Watching Dick Clark's Rockin' Eve on television a few days ago, I wondered silently in my head why anyone would take anything that Jenny McCarthy says seriously.

Then I remembered that countless people have hinged major parenting decisions on her words.

Then I remembered that she penned not one, but three books about autism. In those books, she advocated vigorously for the connection, dismissed by several scientific studies, between vaccines and autism. She didn't just imply that her child developed the condition immediately after being vaccinated, she basically stood on a soapbox for years and screamed it, then told people that it can be cured.

When her son was diagnosed in 2005, she made the prevention and treatment of autism her main focus in life. She poured all her energy into it, much like most parents facing the condition.

What she had that most other parents don't was pre-existing fame. She used it, oh did she use it. She used it to wax poetic about possible causes and latched quickly onto the idea that vaccines had caused his condition, then she took that and ran with it. She was on television programs, she was interviewed for magazines, she wrote books, she quickly became the poster child of the anti-vaccine movement among the parents of our generation. She started a website for parents, soliciting donations even.

In 2010, when her son magically recovered from the condition(1), it was fairly quickly hypothesized in a Time article she was interviewed for that he actually had a condition known as Landau-Kleffner syndrome which causes speech impairment and can be associated with long term neurological damage. She knew then that he may never have been autistic at all, but held fast to the idea that he was and that she had cured him. She started to backpedal on her vigorous crusade against vaccines, and started to say that they just needed better research instead of parents refusing them entirely. She still stuck to his diagnosis of autism and his alleged recovery from it, though. 

By 2010, though, her books were out there in the world, being carried into the offices of pediatricians by well-meaning parents terrified of needles and vials as ammunition in their argument against vaccines.

She is still standing behind them now. She responded to the most recent controversy, which isn't even a new controversy since it is pertaining to the 2010 interview, with this statement:

Evan was diagnosed with autism by the Autism Evaluation Clinic at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Hospital and was confirmed by the State of California (through their Regional Center). The implication that I have changed my position, that my child was not initially diagnosed with autism (and instead may suffer from Landau-Kleffner Syndrome), is both irresponsible and inaccurate. These stories cite a “new” Time Magazine interview with me, which was actually published in 2010, that never contained any such statements by me. Continued misrepresentations, such as these, only serve to open wounds of the many families who are courageously dealing with this disorder. Please know that I am taking every legal measure necessary to set this straight.

Maybe he does have autism. Maybe he doesn't. Maybe no one should really be listening to whatever she has to say about it in the first place. Last time I checked, she was an actress, not a medical professional.

Made by my dear friend at Manderstanding.
It's a joke. Sort of.
The only study that has ever shown a link between vaccines and autism was debunked as fraudulent, and every other study looking for a connection has found none.

Does this mean that we can just wash our hands of the cause of autism and decree from the mountaintops the safety of vaccines? No, it doesn't. I say this not just as a blogger, but as a mother who elected to delay and space vaccines for one of my children because he demonstrates hyper sensitive autoimmune re-activity. I say this as someone who studied for years in the field of public health and can read and understand the papers released when studies are completed with a cynical eye. I say this as someone who worked on the legal staff of a hospital.

I know, because of my background, that medical studies are not ever as clear cut as the media tends to make them. I always, always, always do further research into the funding of the study, where it was performed and look for the players in the background that may be skewing the results, even if unintentionally. I say that I absolutely think that there needs to be more study in the areas both of autism research and vaccine safety. I say that I don't believe we understand enough about either. I've written about the cases where the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program paid out settlements to families alleging a connection. 

I say all these things because I am a well educated parent who happens to be well versed with medical literature. I do my own research. I discuss all vaccination decisions with both my pediatrician and my son's endocrinologist. I don't rely on what an actress said in a book.

No one should.

Doesn't mean that no one did.

Current research tells us that vaccines do not cause autism. 

Current research tells us that vaccines prevent diseases that can cause illness, injury and death.

She knew that, and she wrote all those books anyway.

I haven't read them, I will be the first to admit it. I have to assume that she inserted disclaimers in them about how parents are supposed to talk to their pediatricians and that she isn't a medical professional. I have to assume her lawyers would have forced her put disclaimers in them.

I also have to assume that a lot of people took what she wrote to heart, as she shared this painful journey of a mother desperately seeking answers for her child. I saw the interviews where she cried on television, she railed against the medical establishment. I can only imagine how her words would jump off the page and burn themselves into the minds and hearts of parents in the same place she said she was.

The only reason she was on those television shows, in the pages of those magazines, the only reason her books sold as much as they did? The books where she professed to heal autism?

Her fame.

She used it, and her son's condition, to generate more fame. Her soapbox was bigger, more visible, with a better sound system. It even helped land her a spot on The View.

I have to hope that she did it because she believed it. I have to hope that she wasn't just taking advantage of her son's issues for publicity and screen time. I have to hope that she really felt like she was doing the right thing. I have to hope that she was convinced she was right. I have to hope she was just a scared parent looking for answers.

I have to. Because if she wasn't any of those things, it doesn't make all of this a terrible mistake, it makes it sick and wrong.

There is no way to know how many people believed her. No way to know how many people carried her book into their pediatricians' offices and stood their ground, refused shots for preventable diseases. No way to know how many of those kids contracted diseases they could have been protected against. No way to know how many others were infected by those kids. No way to know how many of them died. No way to know how damaged the effect of herd immunity is because fewer and fewer kids are fully immunized.

This page tries to keep a tally, though it's impossible to say how much of this is because of her influence, and how much is attributed to the anti-vaccine movement in general. This book talks specifically about the damage that people like her have done and the very real consequences of the anti-vaccine movement.

The damage she has done puts an exclamation point on the danger of people who use their fame to manipulate others. She isn't just influencing small trivial things, here. She is influencing life and death decisions and taking no responsibility for it. She will, however, enjoy more time in the spotlight, thank you very much, even if it means threatening a lawsuit.

This is her reputation at stake, after all. That's more important than misleading millions of people.


(just in case I needed to make that clear)

(1) I would have linked to the Time article containing the actual interview, but it now requires a subscription.


  1. This is a well written post about Autism and the causation of it. You have a medical and legal background. You do your research which makes your discussion of Autism and causation much more relevant and credible. Those who read this post should also go to your link where you have written about the cases where the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program paid out settlements to families alleging a connection. I read that link and it will provide more knowledge to people on this issue.

  2. Thanks for this - one of my mother's fb friends is wholly anti-vaccination, which drives me to distraction...So I, of course, shared this so my mother could pass it along, just to stir the pot a little, so to speak!

  3. The fact that she's been the face of the "autism parent" to the outside observer for so many years is just. . . well it make my blood boil. I can think of few people who've gone through as many make-overs as she has. Amazing part is that she always defaults back to obnoxious.


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