Jenny McCarthy recently tried to put one over on planet Earth. She did this by insisting she’s not “anti-vaccine.” In an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times a little over a week ago, the person almost universally acknowledged as the celebrity face of the anti-vaccine movement — a woman who says the MMR vaccine made her own son autistic — distanced herself from the most militant of her claims and statements of the past several years. Whereas she once said, “If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the fucking measles,” she now says:
I believe in the importance of a vaccine program and I believe parents have the right to choose one poke per visit. I’ve never told anyone to not vaccinate. Should a child with the flu receive six vaccines in one doctor visit? Should a child with a compromised immune system be treated the same way as a robust, healthy child? Shouldn’t a child with a family history of vaccine reactions have a different plan? Or at least the right to ask questions?
Sounds reasonable, right? Of course it does — and that’s exactly the point. The change in McCarthy’s tone isn’t the result of a change of heart, it’s simply a concession to the reality of her press coverage these days. With outbreaks of measles and mumps popping up in places like New York City and Los Angeles, very likely tied to drops in vaccination rates and chinks in the armor of herd immunity, McCarthy and her misguided campaign of ignorance have taken a beating in the media. And it’s a beating that’s been well-deserved. This leaves McCarthy with little choice but to soften her rhetoric if she hopes to continue being taken the least bit seriously. Make no mistake: She still believes vaccines can cause autism and that parents should be very wary of them, she’s just adding giant spoonfuls of sugar now to make the bad medicine go down a little easier. The message hasn’t really changed — since it’s still based on no science whatsoever, merely a celebrity’s arrogance and a mother’s moral certitude — only the way it’s delivered. We’re looking at savvy PR here and nothing more.
But given that the talking points memo may have gone out from anti-vax HQ recommending that non-threatening language be used from here on out, maybe it’s important to make something clear and unequivocal: If you’re anti-vaccine, you’re not reasonable. If you believe there’s any link whatsoever between vaccines and autism, you’re not reasonable. If you believe the CDC’s current vaccination recommendations are dangerous to children and should be looked upon with suspicion, you’re not reasonable. If you believe that being a parent somehow makes you more qualified than a doctor to render informed decisions about your child’s healthcare, you’re not reasonable. What makes you not reasonable in every one of these cases is that your views are based on speculation and sophistry rather than on hard scientific evidence.
April is Autism Awareness Month and to mark this XETV, the CW station in San Diego, has twice hosted a guest named Rebecca Estepp, consulting with her on matters concerning the autism rate in the U.S. Both times on the air she’s been introduced as an “autism activist” from the website Age of Autism, and because she’s the mother of a child with autism she’s pitched as someone with expertise on the subject. Estepp seems like a genuinely nice person and it’s impossible not to feel for her as she tells a story about how she took her son to the doctor for a Hepatitis B vaccine at nine months and by the next morning he was a different child. Estepp soft-pedals when it comes to the kind of language she uses, saying more than once that it’s not as if she actually wants to be there talking about this health crisis. She feels, however, that not enough is being done to stem the rise of autism diagnoses in the United States. This is the image she presents to the moms and dads sitting at home watching XETV: a concerned mother who just wants to help stop this from happening.
If you check Rebecca Estepp’s Twitter page, though, she comes right out and says that one of her boys suffers from “vaccine-induced autism,” while her feed is the usual mishmash of anti-vaccine conspiracist nonsense. She retweets Donald Trump and fires off info at Jenny McCarthy and Kristen Cavallari. One piece she circulates comes from another mother who writes an open letter to parents who do vaccinate their children, making the case for why she shouldn’t be attacked for refusing not to; “I choose not to vaccinate my children but that means I am PRO natural immunity,” she writes. Another column she retweets was published in Reason magazine, the monthly libertarian Bible, and demands that vaccinations not be mandatory but instead be left up to parents. (A thread that runs through Estepp’s feed as well as the thinking of most anti-vaccination activists is that parents almost always know what’s best for their kids when it comes to medical decisions.)
As far back as 2007, Estepp appeared on — wait for it — Alex Jones’s Infowars show, where she was egged on by Jones, who claimed babies everywhere are getting vaccination shots, falling into two-day comas and immediately coming out autistic. Jones at one point asks Estepp, “What has your research shown?” Keep in mind, Rebecca Estepp isn’t a doctor or a scientist of any kind — she’s a mother. To her credit and in her defense, she does seem kind of blindsided by Jones when he goes off into la-la land and begins arguing that medical professionals are purposely giving kids autism. At one point he asks her, “Have you ever heard of Nazi eugenics?” You kind of feel sorry for her at that moment.
But overall, no matter how softly this pitch is thrown it’s still aimed right over the plate. In total, Estepp has been given two full segments on television in a top-30 market over the past month and not once during that time did the anchor asking the questions really press her on her views. No facts about the non-existent link between autism and vaccines were brought up. At no point did the statistics about rising measles, mumps, and whooping cough rates get a thorough going-over. Basically, Rebecca Estepp was allowed to filibuster with no intervention from XETV morning anchor Heather Myers and by the end of it all she seemed completely, yes, reasonable. Myers didn’t have to be stridently adversarial, certainly, but she did have to be a journalist and not doing so in this case was grossly irresponsible. The vaccination of children is far too important a subject to suddenly decide to fall asleep — or play cheerleader — while discussing.
The point is that there’s been so much push-back lately against this intellectually dishonest crap that those who espouse it are now tempering their language and tone because they know they have to. And that makes an already dangerous situation even more dangerous because while it’s easy to dismiss someone who comes at you with their arms swinging and their voice raised it’s a much more seductive and convincing proposition when you’re approached by someone who seems completely rational. But don’t be fooled. Anti-vaccination rhetoric isn’t based on an ounce of proven science. And someone claiming not to be “anti-vaccine” who goes on to speak out and make decisions as if there’s a link between vaccinations and autism is dishonest at face value.
If you believe something despite a mountain of contradictory evidence, you’re not reasonable. Which means that if you’re anti-vaccine, you’re not reasonable.