On vaccines and autism, child pornography, and seeing “bullies” everywhere

Bullying. You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Yes, I do so love to co-opt that famous line from The Princess Bride for my own nefarious purposes, but it’s so perfect for this particular topic, which comes up every so often when I’m writing about the pseudoscience behind the antivaccine movement. It usually takes the form of an emotional screed by some antivaccine parent or other complaining about how she’s being “bullied” by us nasty, evil, insensitive pro-vaccine, well, bullies. (They frequently repeat the word many times throughout the course of their little rants.) A newspaper prints a pro-vaccine article critical of antivaccine pseudoscience? It’s bullying. What about if a friend questions her antivaccine views? It’s bullying. How about if her school or daycare requires her child to be up to date on her vaccines before attending. Obviously it’s bullying. And heaven help any pediatrician who who tries to persuade her that her vaccine pseudoscience is pseudoscience and that she should vaccinated. Obviously he (and it’s almost always a he in these stories) is nothing but a big fat medical bully.

You get the idea. We’ve seen these sorts of rants from people like Katie Tietje, Cathy Jameson, and countless other antivaccinationists that I haven’t discussed. Just before Thanksgiving, I saw one by another of the merry band of angry antivaccine warriors over at that wretched hive of scum and quackery, Age of Autism. It’s by someone whom I don’t recall having heard of before, Dara Berger, and is entitled, unironically, Pro-Vaxxers Are America’s Acceptable Bullies.

Because I had never heard of Dara Berger before, I did a quick Google search to see what her connection is with the antivaccine movement (other than, apparently, blogging for Age of Autism). I quickly learned that she is a Board Member and Co-Chair of the Programming Committee for the National Autism Association NY Metro Chapter and is on the Advisory Board of a documentary being made called Documenting Hope that will “document” recovery from autism and other chronic conditions. Looking at the medical advisory committee, which includes Dr. Martha Herbert, Dr. Jay Gordon, Dr. Mark Hyman, Dr. Frank Lipman, an acupuncturist, and a whole lot of other woo, I don’t have high hopes that his movie will be particularly science-based…obviously. After all, here we have a woman involved with an organization that believes vaccines cause autism, plus several others who have aligned themselves with the antivaccine movement, one of whom (Dr. Hyman) even co-authored a recent antivaccine screed with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. himself! Then there’s the National Autism Association, which until recently listed vaccinations as a cause of autism on its website.

Whatever her background, Berger is nothing if not melodramatic (not to mention grandiose). Note her conclusion after setting it up with a description of the problem of bullying in school:

Everyday we hear horrible stories about children being bullied in school. Some refer to it as an epidemic. The tactics are so much worse than when I grew up in the 70’s. You could not get an entire school to gang up on someone’s Facebook page or send a compromised picture or video of that person and have it go viral. You pretty much had only a few choices to hurt them. Whisper rumors about them to other people, which let’s face it takes time. One popular thing was to scribble something mean about them on the bathroom wall. Although you had to hope that people used the stall and actually noticed the writing.

Bullying is a horrible thing to live through especially when it involves a child. It can leave lasting physical and emotional scars. Children have even lost their lives to bullying as some get pushed over the edge and commit suicide. We here these stories everyday. Luckily there is more awareness and parents have some recourse. They can sue the school or do something more drastic like move or change schools to protect their child.

But what happens when an entire country is bullying individuals? I find that this is the case for Vaccine Bullying.

That’s right. It’s not just doctors. It’s not just pro-vaccine friends and nasty skeptics like myself. It’s the entire damned United States of America bullying her! One can’t help but wonder: What is the US doing to bully the brave Ms. Berger? Has it started a whisper campaign about her? Has it ganged up on her Facebook page? Has it scribbled mean things about her on the bathroom wall? Inquiring minds want to know!

Unfortunately, Ms. Berger is all too happy to explain. To her The Vaccine Bully is comprised of our entire government because the government doesn’t accept that “vaccines are hurting adults and children even though they secretly pay out billions of dollars in their not well disclosed Vaccine Court.” This struck me as a strange assertion. The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program has a prominent, easy-to-find website, complete with lots of information, instructions on how to file a claim, and, of course, data and statistics easily accessible to anyone with a computer or smartphone. The latest statistics were even updated in October. I know, I know, just because there’s a website doesn’t mean that people know about the Vaccine Court, but Ms. Berger is clearly trying to insinuate that the government is trying to hide the existence of the court while referring to the government “secretly” paying out billions of dollars. It’s not much of a secret (at least not to me and most reasonable people) if figures as recent as last month are easily discoverable on the web on an official government website.

It’s not just the government, though. Oh, no. It’s those damned pediatricians. Ms. Berger tells a tale of woe about an encounter with a pediatrician:

I went to a new doctor on West 79th street. He was a highly recommended pediatrician. During the visit, I told him that I only wanted to do the Polio vaccine since I heard it was one of the more benign ones and that I was worried about giving vaccines to my 3 month old baby. He started to raise his voice and said that I need to give a more useful one like the DTaP. I said that I didn’t want to. He proceeded to speak much louder and told me “I will not stand by and watch you kill your baby”. He actually said these words to me! I left immediately as tears fired down my face. I marched right up to the receptionist and said “don’t even think of submitting this visit to my insurance, since this was not a proper doctors visit and I now have to go see another doctor”. Then I continued “tell him I will report the visit as fraud if he tries to get paid”. She looked at me shocked and kind of mumbled okay. I checked every explanation of benefits for the next 6 months. He never submitted it. I felt some vindication in my small way that I stood up to him and did not pay him for his lousy behavior.

My guess is that this is a rather—shall we say?—selective retelling of the tale. If the doctor truly behaved as described, that’s unacceptable, but I rather suspect that Ms. Berger is leaving some things out. For one thing, a pediatrician trying to maintain a practice on the Upper West Side is not likely to start yelling at a patient’s mother so easily. I know doctors who practice in New York City. It’s very, very competitive, and referral patterns are pretty tight and inflexible. A pediatrician who yelled at a patient’s mother like this would risk seeing his referrals and recommendations drying up. This would be doubly true for an affluent Manhattan neighborhood like the Upper West Side. Reading between the lines, having heard many similar stories from antivaccine activists like Ms. Berger, my guess is that Ms. Berger was a particularly annoying antivaccine parent and the pediatrician just got fed up. It’s understandable. I don’t know if I could keep my cool if I were a pediatrician facing my fourth or fifth parent like Ms. Berger in a day, which is why it’s a good thing I didn’t become a pediatrician.

Let’s accept that if the pediatrician did indeed yell at her (although from the story it sounds more likely that he probably raised his voice in exasperation) it was a bad thing. However, it’s not “bullying” to try to persuade a parent to vaccinate her child. Vaccination is standard of care medical practice, and parents who don’t vaccinate their children put not only their children in danger, but the children of others. A pediatrician who does not try to persuade parents to vaccinate is, in my not-so-humble opinion, committing at best medical negligence and at worst malpractice. Definitely, he’s failing to live up to the standards of his profession.

Ms. Berger also characterizes being required by school administrators to have her children vaccinated before they can attend school to be “bullying.” Of course, school vaccine mandates are the law, and school administrators are simply following the law by requiring proof of vaccination before letting children into school. By Ms. Berger’s standards, any government official or police officer who enforces the law is being a “bully.” That cop who pulled you over for going 20 MPH over the speed limit and wrote you a fat ticket? Definitely a bully! Shouldn’t you be allowed to drive as fast as you want? What about that parking officer who saw that your meter expired a half hour ago and wrote you a ticket? Super bully! Shouldn’t we be able to park wherever we want and for however long we need to for free?

So fragile is Ms. Berger that to her any questioning of her antivaccine views or story is “bullying.” She relates a tale of how at dinner a cousin had the temerity to question her claim that vaccines caused her child to have a stroke, pointing out, quite reasonably, that “you can’t be sure it was the vaccine.” This led the fragile Ms. Berger to scream back at her “YES! I am sure” and ignore her the rest of the meal, concluding:

I felt very angry how she could even think to question me not once, but three times. If my son had broken his leg, she would never have asked me how I could be sure. It is her own brainwashed views on vaccines that caused her to try to bully me at a dinner party. It was both inappropriate and inexcusable. I have decided to forgive her ignorance for my own peace and sanity. It’s just incredible how pervasive vaccine bullying can be.

I don’t consider questioning a claim that vaccines caused strokes to be “bullying,” given that there is no good scientific evidence that vaccines do, in fact, cause strokes. That was a face-to-face encounter, though. Ms. Berger is even more fragile than I’ve shown thus far, as she concludes with an example of horrific online bullying that is terrifying to behold:

I recently had someone send me a link to a book called “Neurotribes” which is about how autism has always been around and it’s just better diagnosis. I haven’t read the book but watched three minutes of the author speak. I immediately closed the link and wrote my “friend” that I find the link upsetting. I said my son was vaccine injured like many children with Autism. The authors’s book undermines what has happened to so many children like my son”. This person ignored my comment. I was angry that he would not even acknowledge that the link upset me. I went at him again the next day. I explained further that “I live in a world everyday that pretends what happened to my son did not happen. I continued “when we were growing up there were not all these kids that could not walk and talk”. He again ignored my message. I felt silently bullied. So I pressed on with my third and final message the following day. Here is what I wrote verbatim: “that link was more upsetting than child porn would be to me. Your insensitivity explains why you are still alone. Most people just apologize when they realize they have upset someone even if it’s unintentional”. He finally said that he was sorry. I probably have not changed his views, but I believe he might think twice the next time he talks about vaccines and autism with a parent who has a vaccine injured child. And if he upsets them, maybe it won’t take 3 days to apologize.

Yes, you heard it. A friend sent Ms. Berger a link to a book he thought she might like. What was his reward for something he probably did out of kindness? Ms. Berger totally flipped out. So, as many people would do, he simply went quiet, no doubt hoping not to escalate the situation. Finally, after three angry e-mail responses from Ms. Berger, he appears to have apologized, most likely to get this ranting woman off his back. I might have done the same thing, although, to be honest, were it me I’d probably have issued a notpology along the lines of, “I’m sorry you’re angry because of this.” If Ms. Berger wonders why autism antivaccine activists are so commonly viewed as a bunch of ranting loons, perhaps she should look at her own behavior in response to an innocent, well-intentioned e-mail from a friend.

To say Ms. Barger’s response was disproportionate to the perceived offense would be an understatement. Think about it. She actually said that receiving a link to a book by Steve Silberman about how autism has always been with us was more upsetting to her than child porn! Let me repeat that to emphasize the lack of proportionality: A book on autism—no, a mere web link to a book on autism—that doesn’t support the idea that vaccines cause autism upset Ms. Barger more than viewing child pornography would! That’s right. Ms. Barger is seriously equating the level of offense caused by questioning whether we really are in the midst of an “autism epidemic,” a key cornerstone of the antivaccine faith (because if autism prevalence only appears to be skyrocketing because of better diagnosis, more intense screening, and diagnostic substitution then vaccines couldn’t possibly be causing autism), with child pornography.

The mind boggles.

So what do we do about this fantastical problem of Vaccine Bullying (which, I note, Ms. Berger always capitalizes)? This, apparently:

So what do we do about the problem of Vaccine Bullying. I suggest always speaking up to a bully as long as it does not infringe upon you or your child’s safety. We could write more articles on the subject to educate people. There could be a task force created to counsel those being bullied. Most of all we can stand together and support one another for a cause that affects the entire community. You would think that the world would feel some empathy for parents who have a child with vaccine induced Autism, but instead we are persecuted for standing up and warning others.

May I suggest not badgering a friend who did nothing more than innocently recommend a book to her with three ranty e-mails demanding an apology? No? Oh, well…

Heather Barajas comparing her plight to that of Jews during Nazi Germany. This is also not what is going on when antivaccine activists are criticized for their antivaccine beliefs.

Heather Barajas comparing her plight to that of Jews during Nazi Germany. This is also not what is going on when antivaccine activists are criticized for their antivaccine beliefs.

Antivaccinationists love to paint themselves as being “persecuted” and “bullied” for their beliefs. Frequently they take this persecution complex to ridiculous extremes, such as during the debate over the passage of the new California law SB 277, which will eliminate nonmedical vaccine exemptions beginning in 2016, when antivaccine activists routinely likened the law to fascism and themselves to Jews in Germany during the Nazi era, complete with offensive co-optation of the yellow Star of David badges that the Nazis forced Jews to wear. (Even Dr. Bob Sears couldn’t resist using such imagery.) Co-opting Holocaust imagery is not a new thing, either. Meanwhile, at AoA, Ms. Berger’s co-blogger, Kent Heckenlively, has been known to liken his struggle to that of Aragorn against the dark lord Sauron in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

I suppose I should be grateful that Ms. Berger confined her rhetoric to just being bullied.

Aragorn and his outnumbered armies face the assembled hordes of the dark lord Sauron as the Black Gate to Mordor opens. This is also not what is happening when antivaccinationists face criticism for their views.

Aragorn and his outnumbered armies face the assembled hordes of the dark lord Sauron as the Black Gate of Mordor opens. This is also not what is happening when antivaccinationists face criticism for their views.