One of the most insidious and oft-repeated myths of the antivaccine movement is that vaccines cause autism. Certainly, it is true that there was an antivaccine movement long before anyone thought of linking vaccines to autism. For example, in the the 1980s the DPT (diptheria-whole cell pertussis-tetanus) vaccine was linked to encephalitis and neurological damage, a scare that lead to a wave of lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers that threatened the US vaccine program. Congress replied by passing the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, a “no-fault” act in which vaccine manufacturers paid into a fund to compensate families of children with legitimate vaccine injury and in return all vaccine injury claims had to go through the newly created National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) and Vaccine Court. Children with certain “table injuries” would be compensated rapidly and surely, and their legal costs were paid, win or lose.
Unfortunately, in the 1990s the myth arose that vaccines could somehow cause or trigger autism. this myth arose in part because broadened diagnostic criteria in the early 1990s coupled with screening programs that would result in diagnoses of autism where before there had been other diagnoses, such as mental retardation, resulted in a huge increase in the prevalence of autism. Humans being humans, some linked the increase in the number of vaccines in the vaccine schedule around the same time to this increasing prevalence of autism, and the vaccine-autism myth was born. Add to that Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet case series that purported to show an association between the MMR vaccine and autism, and the myth was greatly strengthened, such that now it is one of the central organizing myths of the antivaccine movement, along with the conspiracy theory that the CDC has slam dunk evidence showing that vaccines cause autism but is hiding it because it is in collusion with big pharma to keep selling vaccines.
Indeed, there is now a documentary making the rounds that makes in essence exactly those claims, using a disgruntled CDC scientist named William Thompson, who had a disagreement with his co-investigators over the interpretation of a 2004 study that failed to find a link between the MMR vaccine and autism and, as a result, reached out to a biochemical engineer turned incompetent antivaccine epidemiologist named Brian Hooker. Thompson helped Hooker get access to the raw dataset for that 2004 study, which he reanalyzed in a now-retracted paper that purported to show a correlation between vaccination with MMR and autism in African-American males. Thus was born the “CDC whistleblower” saga, which is now the subject of a movie produced by Del Bigtree and directed by Andrew Wakefield, VAXXED: From Cover-up to Catastrophe.
I’m not going to discuss VAXXED any further this post, although I have finally seen it and will in a few days be posting a modified version of a lengthy review I posted elsewhere. The reason I bring it up is because various combinations of Del Bigtree, Andrew Wakefield, and Polly Tommey have been going around the country promoting the movie and doing Q&As after screenings, which they’ve been recording and posting to Facebook and YouTube (for example, here). I’m going to discuss a couple of more of these videos because, better than anything I’ve seen recently, they demonstrate that when antivaccinationists claim not to be “antivaccine” but “pro-vaccine safety” or “vaccine safety activists,” they are either self-deluded or lying. It’s worse than that, though. When they claim to be “autism activists” or advocates for autistic children, that too is a lie or delusion.
Here is the main video I’m talking about, posted to Del Bigtree’s Facebook page of his Q&A with Polly Tommey in Pittsburgh on July 10:
The first relevant part of the video has been nicely excerpted by Reasonable Hank:
Polly Tommey states unequivocally that there is no such thing as a safe vaccine:
In my mind, Polly Tommey as a parent, people that I’m speaking to, there clearly is no safe vaccine, because the only person that I will believe—and every single parent stood up who’s lived the same misery that I have, I can tell you, we will never trust again. We will never stick another needle. You can say this is a safe vaccine, but we will never believe you. How can we believe you?
Got that? Tommey says unequivocally that there is no safe vaccine and that she will never believe scientists that vaccines are safe, no matter what. From the tone of her voice, her combativeness, it is easy to see that she means what she says. It’s also easy to see that it’s unlikely that any amount of evidence will lead her to change her mind.
Indeed, she goes beyond that. Before the clip above, before Tommey says she will never, ever vaccinated, she invokes a common antivaccine trope, namely that vaccines kill. Check it out around 14:00:
America, you have really opened our eyes up. We are hearing from parents whose babies have died from their Hib vaccine, babies who have died from the DTaP vaccine, and then they call it…SIDS. And from where we’re standing right now, that is a new word for “death by vaccine,” because nobody will acknowledge but the parents know. We parents know what happened to our children, and, death after death after death, it is incredible. It’s almost every Q&A we’re getting at least one baby that died from the the Hib or the birth [Hepatitis B vaccine] or from the DTaP. And then there are children like mine, who have seizures and regress, and that’s called “autism.” To me now, that’s just another word that we’re chucking our children under the rug, because actually what it really is is vaccine injury. Anything but vaccine injury, anything but death by vaccine. Why are they not talking about the fact that these vaccines are killing, maiming, and murdering the brains of our children? A 19-year-old boy wants to go to college, gets a flu vaccine, and dies. The Gardasil victims, it’s everywhere. It’s every single vaccine. We didn’t start out to listen to this. We just had our story to tell here, and now we’re hearing from the military. It’s coming out of every corner.
So let’s see. Wakefield, Bigtree, and Tommey are “not antivaccine.” At least, that’s what they’ve claimed again and again and again. Yet they’ve just made a movie filled with nearly every antivaccine myth, conspiracy theory, and trope known to humankind and are selling it by saying things like “Vaccines kill”; SIDS is “death from vaccines”; autism is “vaccine injury,” the result of vaccines “murdering the brains of our children”; that it’s “every single vaccine”; and that there is no safe vaccine. One of my favorite tricks to get an antivaccinationist to reveal herself is based on a similar trick I used to use in alt.revisionism regarding Holocaust history. Basically, it involves asking a couple of very simple questions:
- Are there any vaccines you consider safe and effective enough to give your child
- If the answer is yes, please name them and tell me why.
Someone who is not antivaccine will usually be able to rattle off at least a couple of vaccines—even if it’s just the tetanus vaccine—as being worth receiving. Antivaccinationists like Tommey, on the other hand, will either answer “none,” or, sensing the trap, equivocate, waffle, and go on a rant about specific vaccines.
This is just a taste, too. Elsewhere in the Q&A, Bigtree rants about the evils of big pharma and blames it for all this alleged death and destruction. In another Q&A in May, Tommey described a conversation she had from a caller to a radio show in which she was being interviewed, in which she was asked about California after SB 277, the law that eliminates nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates:
This one guy called in, and he says, “I have a four year old daughter who’s unvaccinated. Everything’s great. But now I have to vaccinate her.” And I couldn’t get him to say, “No you don’t have to vaccinate her.”
Here’s the thing. Parents are so worried—well, they should be worried; they’re in California. There’s no school, no job, no house, no anything worth putting a vaccine in your child, and it doesn’t seem to be sinking in, and I’m not judging, because I used to be that person. I mean, he saw VAXXED; yet he still says , “I live in California. I’m going to have to vaccinate my child.”
“There’s no school, no job, no house, no anything worth putting a vaccine in your child”? That doesn’t sound as though it’s something a vaccine safety advocate would say, but it sure does sound like something an antivaccine activist would say.
So does this gem from Bigtree at a different Q&A for VAXXED:
In this segment, Bigtree is clearly discussing SB 277 when he asks, “What were the Jewish people thinking when the Nazis took over?” (He even made a reference to the Yellow Star of David, just like Heather Barajas did last year when she likened herself and her daughter to Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation.) Nazi analogies are very popular among antivaccine activists and the antivaccine-sympathetic, after all. Oh, and Bigtree also likens the rhetoric about vaccination to slavery, as well! Truly, it’s a two-fer of antivaccine persecution complex.
It’s also far from the only time Bigtree has invoked such rhetoric:
Yes, in this selection of excerpts from speeches and appearances, Bigtree likens those promoting vaccination to Nazis during the Holocaust, to slave owners and slavery advocates before the Civil War (even explicitly saying that parents and children are being “enslaved”), and to whites during apartheid, with he and his brave band of antivaccine activists being the Jews, the slaves, and the blacks, respectively, in those historical events. Unfortunately, when you compare those who disagree with you to Nazis, slave owners, and whites enforcing apartheid and those people happen to be pro-vaccine advocates looking for strategies to increase vaccine uptake, it’s hard not to conclude that your rhetoric has nothing to do with vaccine safety and everything to do with being antivaccine.
It’s worse than that, though. Not long after Tommey’s little rant about how vaccines kill and cause autism and how there’s no safe vaccine, she sinks even lower. This brings me to the second claim that antivaccine activists like Polly Tommey frequently make, that they are advocates for the autistic. Indeed, Tommey started a magazine called The Autism File, as though it were a lifestyle and advocacy magazine for families with autistic children and adults, even though in reality it is more a paean to Andrew Wakefield and a repository of quack “autism biomed” treatments designed to treat the “vaccine injury” that Tommey believes autism to be. Another example is the antivaccinationists who believe that vaccines cause autism who started a blog. When they named it, they named it “Age of Autism,” even though it’s around 90% about vaccines and how they believe that vaccines cause autism, 9% about quack “autism biomed” treatments, and maybe 1% true autism advocacy. (OK, I’m probably giving them too much credit.) Yet another group is “Generation Rescue,” the idea being to “rescue” autistic children from autism.
Now let’s see what Tommey thinks of autistic children, as we pick up where we left off in her Pittsburgh Q&A:
And who is going to look after our children? Who’s going to take Billy on? Who’ll be able to stand Billy with those terrible tantrums he has? Who? No one’s going to take him on. They’ll put a four point restraint bed and psychotropic drugs or see him out on the street.
Then, she says this:
I’m going to let you listen to this for yourself, but I will point out that she concludes by saying I will “never judge them for what they did,” the “them” being parents who murdered their autistic child.
Just let that sink in a moment. Polly Tommey won’t judge parents who kill their autistic children. No doubt part of this reticence comes from the murder of Alex Spourdalakis, an autistic teen whose mother killed him. It was a story that was reported dishonestly by antivaccine reporter Sharyl Attkisson, but, worse, it was a tragedy that Andrew Wakefield and Polly Tommey glommed onto in order to make a video for their Autism Media Channel.
Matt Carey sums up her involvement thusly:
But the low point of Polly Tommey’s advocacy career came when she and Andrew Wakefield “helped” a family in crisis. They were working on a reality TV show (that failed to get off the ground) called the Autism Team. The idea was simple: find a family with an autistic child who is in need of help. Swoop in with Team Wakefield, blame vaccines, claim it’s all about gastrointestinal issues, claim to have helped the family and move on to the next. But it all fell apart with one family–that of Alex Spourdalakis. In the autism community, a community were people have extraordinary needs, Alex had extraordinary needs. What he didn’t need was for his mother to be fed false hopes and bad advice, which is what Team Wakefield did. What he didn’t need was for Team Wakefield to walk away to their next project, leaving his mother with nothing when the hope they were sold proved false.
Alex was murdered. Brutally murdered. By his mother and another caregiver. Alex was poisoned. When that failed to kill him, he was stabbed. Repeatedly. His wrist was slit to the bone. By his mother and caregiver. Alex bled to death, leaving a grisly scene for when his father, estranged from the mother, found him.
The fact that Polly Tommey won’t face up to her abject failure with Alex Spourdalakis is not surprising. It is also not surprising that Polly Tommey won’t judge the people who committed that brutal murder, or any other murder by a parent of an autistic child. Not surprising, but an example of the failure of Polly Tommey and other faux autism advocates to actually stand up and lead. How hard is it to say, “No! Murder is wrong”?
Polly Tommey met Alex Spourdalakis. But she “won’t judge” the person who plunged a knife into his chest. She won’t judge the person who poisoned him. She won’t judge the person who slit his wrist.
No, she won’t judge Alex’s murderers. Instead she and Wakefield capitalized on the tragedy to make “documentary”, taking Alex’s story to promote their own agenda.
I don’t think I could have said it better than that, particularly given that I lack the direct experience with autism that Carey has. All I really have to add is that Tommey seems to be like a lot of mothers of autistic children who have turned to the Dark Side (become antivaccine). She doesn’t seem to view her child as fully human; her “real” child was the normal son she had before his symptoms of developmental delay and autism manifested themselves. Once that happened, the very human tendency to need an explanation manifested itself, and unfortunately, for whatever reason, the explanation that most resonated with her was vaccines.
Tommey might think herself a vaccine safety advocate uncovering CDC malfeasance and a champion for autistic children, but her own words and behavior show quite conclusively that nothing could be further from the truth. I wonder what Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who met with Bigtree in June to listen to the pleas of antivaccine activists to subpoena the “CDC whistleblower” would think if he knew just how antivaccine Bigtree is. Probably nothing, and that’s depressing.