Despicable rhetoric from Rush Limbaugh about Michael J. Fox

Yesterday afternoon, while working on grants, I was flipping through radio channels, and I came across something that stopped my dial twiddling in its tracks. It was Rush Limbaugh, and he was trashing Michael J. Fox for making a commercial in support of stem cell research.

As you may recall, Michael J. Fox is the unfortunate sufferer of a virulent form of Parkinson’s Disease, which he contracted at the very young age of around 30. He’s now had it for 15 years, and, as Parkinson’s is wont to do, it’s slowly gotten worse. Indeed, Fox has more or less given up acting since 2000 because of the disease. He now heads an advocacy organization, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and has become a strong advocate for stem cell research, given that Parkinson’s Disease is one of the diseases for which stem cell therapy shows promise. He has appeared in a political ad for Claire McCaskill in Missouri, and this is what ticked Limbaugh off:

Limbaugh’s reaction was utterly despicable. He assailed Fox for using his disease to “shill” for a Democratic candidate. But, worst of all, he said:

A political ad in which a Parkinson’s-afflicted Michael J. Fox talks about stem cell research was criticized Monday by conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who asserted that Fox was “either off his medication or acting” while filming the commercial.

“Michael J. Fox is allowing his illness to be exploited and in the process is shilling for a Democrat politician,” Limbaugh said of the ad for Senate candidate Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

Limbaugh later seemed to back off the idea that Fox was acting out symptoms, saying he didn’t mean to imply “that one could easily act it out for the purposes of a commercial.”

But he also said, “I have gotten a plethora of e-mails from people saying Michael J. Fox has admitted in interviews that he goes off his medication for Parkinson’s disease when he appears before Congress or other groups as a means of illustrating the ravages of the disease.”

This article doesn’t give the full flavor of what Limbaugh actually sounded like. He accused Fox of acting multiple times before finally saying that he thought that Fox was either acting or intentionally went off his medications for the ad. Audio of Rush’s tirade can be found here, so that you can see for yourself what I mean. However, there was much more than just this clip, as this transcript shows.

Such ignorance and spite are appalling. For one thing, the medications used to treat Parkinson’s Disease become slowly less effective over time, requiring higher and higher doses. And these medications have side effects that are not trivial. For example, I’m not a neurologist, but to me it looked as though the movements that Fox was demonstrating were not due to his Parkinson’s, but rather due to dyskinesia (a known side effect of the most common treatment for Parkinson’s, L-Dopa). Parkinson’s disease looks different, with tremor, rigidity, and bradykinesia, generally not dyskinesia as its key characteristics (think Pope John Paul II in the months before he died or Muhammed Ali). In any case, multiple Google searches failed to show any evidence that Fox ever said he went off his medications for dramatic effect when advocating for Parkinson’s Disease research. The movements in the ad, which are tragic to look at, are almost certainly a consequence of the chronic use of dopamine agonists used to treat Fox’s Parkinson’s disease and stand as a visual testament that we truly do need better treatments for this disease, which in its later stages becomes a horrible choice between the symptoms of the disease itself or the consequences of chronic use of the drugs needed to control the disease.

Rush Limbaugh: Mocking and beating up on seriously ill people to make political hay. Ya gotta love it. Even if you are of the opinion that stem cell research has been overhyped and that claims have been made for it that it is unlikely to live up to, this is not the way to make that point.

ADDENDUM: Apparently Grrlscientist doesn’t like this either. Art Caplan has also castigated Rush.

ADDENUM #2: The Rude Pundit weighs in and confirms that this was almost certainly dyskinesia:

Now, a Google and Lexis/Nexis search hasn’t revealed where this admission by Fox might have come from. But the Rude Pundit did find a July 24, 2002 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle where Fox said that the meds give him dyskinesia. “The more L-dopa one takes, the more pronounced the dyskinesia. Timing the medication, Fox says, has become an important part of his routine.”