I’ve never been a huge fan of the We The People (WTP) website, which was set up during the Obama administration to allow people to petition the White House and, if they receive a sufficient number of signatures on their petition, receive an official response from the White House. While I applauded the sentiment of wanting to provide people an online means of petitioning the administration and like that a petition receiving 100,000 signatures in 30 days would receive a response, I was disappointed by the results. For one thing, although 321 of the 323 petitions that reached the threshold have received responses (thank you, Wikipedia, for that answer), response time has been slow, and administration responses have generally not been that satisfying. That’s not to say that WTP hasn’t had some successes. Perhaps the most notable came when in 2013, when a petition started by OpenSignal co-founder and digital rights activist Sina Khanifar asking to allow people to unlock their cell phones at the end of their contracts so that they could be used with other carriers reached the 100,000-signature threshold required for a response from the White House. Two weeks later, the Obama administration responded by urging the FCC and Congress to legalize cell phone unlocking, and year later Congress passed the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act. It was the first piece of legislation driven by an online petition.
Unfortunately, there have been a lot of crank petitions, and, now that President Obama is no longer in the White House, that trend appears not to be changing. Indeed, given Donald Trump’s long and sordid history of antivaccine blatherings and his having met with Andrew Wakefield and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., antivaxers believe they have one of their own in the White House now (with good reason) and have been doing their damnedest to get the administration’s attention and have it cater to their wish list for vaccine policy changes. There’s good reason for everyone to fear what could happen to federal health policy under Donald Trump, given how he could undermine trust in vaccine policy.
So it’s probably no wonder that yesterday I started seeing chatter on antivaccine websites and Facebook pages like this:
Of course, the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism was all over it as well.
But what does this petition demand? Let’s take a look:
We cannot make America great with so many disabled autistic children, so we must urgently face the autism epidemic, admit its reality and confront its stunning rise. In addition, we must rein in America’s exploding vaccine schedule. Crucial to any reform in both autism and vaccine policy is an initiative to shine light on corruption and “drain the swamp” of unaccountable bureaucrats.
We ask you to take six actions:
- Declare autism a national emergency.
- Convene a Presidential Commission on Vaccine Safety and Scientific Integrity.
- Depose the CDC whistleblower Dr. William Thompson.
- Conduct a study comparing total health outcomes in vaccinated and unvaccinated populations.
- Create a National Vaccine Safety Board.
- Repeal and Replace the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act.
Sigh. I’ll give antivaxers one thing. They’re persistent. I’ll also ding them on an utter lack of imagination and creativity. In particular, the sucking up to Donald Trump by using his “make America great again” and “drain the swamp” slogans and co-opting the language of “repeal and replace” as Republicans and Donald Trump apply to the Affordable Care Act to the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, which was signed into law by that avowed liberal President Ronald Reagan.
Let’s take a look at some of these, starting with #1. Declare autism a “national emergency”? What would that accomplish? After all, by antivaxers’ own estimation the “autism epidemic” (that almost certainly isn’t an epidemic) has been growing for close to two decades. An emergency is something that is immediately threatening and requires prompt action to forestall dire consequences. Think acts of war or terror. Think natural disasters. Think economic meltdown. Indeed, it’s very revealing what antivaxers think of autistic people by the way they insist on wanting a “national emergency” declared over autism. In reality (something antivaxers are seldom well acquainted with), autism might be a problem—a big problem, even—but it’s not an emergency. It’s not even a problem in the way that antivaxers present it. The real problem due to autism is providing adequate healthcare and services to autistic children and help for them as they become adults, so that those who are able (the vast majority) can find productive work and lead normal lives and those who cannot have a place to live and be cared for. When antivaxers want to declare autism a “national emergency,” what they mean is that they want the government to look into vaccines as a cause of autism even though there is a mountain of evidence showing no correlation between vaccination and the risk of autism.
The rest of these are pretty much interrelated and consist of a mish-mash of the usual demands based on antivaccine conspiracy theories. We have the “CDC Whistleblower,” a conspiracy theory whose birth in August 2014 I had the simultaneously fascinating and horrifying opportunity to watch and write about. It’s a conspiracy theory that took off because it seemed to confirm the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement, namely that the CDC “knew” that vaccines cause autism, have evidence implicating vaccines as a cause of autism, but covered it up. None of that’s true, and certainly the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory doesn’t demonstrate that. Indeed, when a pro-vaccine blogger got a hold of the “100,000 documents” allegedly held by Dr. Thompson that would prove scientific fraud in a study of MMR receipt and timing as risk factors for autism and made them public before Andrew Wakefield and Brian Hooker (initially the two drivers of the whistleblower conspiracy theory), there was a whole lot of nothing there, not that stopped antivaccine-sympathetic reporters from trying to spin them as proving the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement.
As for the “vaxed versus unvaxed study,” it’s a pipe dream that antivaxers have wanted since time immemorial (or at least for the last decade), because they are completely invested in the idea that vaccines are evil and cause Bad Things to happen to children not limited to autism. Indeed, just last week I wrote about one such “vaxed-unvaxed” study that was initially accepted and then rejected by a crappy journal and now has risen from the grave to lumber across the antivaccine blogosphere in search of brains, even though it has so many confouders unaccounted for that it in essence tells us nothing about whether there is a relationship between vaccines and autism. It joins a long line of other “vaxed versus unvaxed studies” even more incompetently designed and carried out. It’s also a myth frequently repeated by the antivaccine movement that there has “never” been a vaxed/unvaxed study. There has. There have been several, in fact. Guess what they show? Surprise! Surprise! They generally show no differences in health outcomes between vaccinated and unvaccinated children, with the exception of the fact that vaccinated children have far fewer instances of vaccine-preventable disease than unvaccinated children (well, duh), or that vaccinated children are generally healthier. Antivaxers want another vaxed/unvaxed study because they think it will show how harmful vaccines are. Of course, they have no clue how to do an actual vaxed/unvaxed study that the difficulties involved and the number of subjects required elude them.
As for “repealing and replacing” the NCVIA and setting up a commission on vaccine safety and vaccine safety board, the real purpose is make it possible for parents to collect compensation for autism as a “vaccine injury,” something the current vaccine court doesn’t allow. Never mind that the Vaccine Court is in general a good deal for parents of children who suffer an actual vaccine injury. It pays the complainants’ court costs, for one thing. If a child has a “table injury” (i.e., an injury that the government has determined as potentially caused by vaccines) compensation is much easier than it would be in the regular courts. Indeed, from my perspective, the only people who would suffer if the Vaccine Court went away would be children with possible vaccine injury and their parents, who would be forced to use the regular court system, with a much smaller possibility of payout. Who would benefit? It would be lawyers who sue for “vaccine-induced autism.” They’re looking for a big payout from which they can take their 33% commission and expenses and are unconcerned whether going back to that sort of system would be the best for the largest number of people. Meanwhile, the “vaccine commission” envisioned by antivaxers would be the one that they thought they were going to get run by someone like RFK Jr. and poised to validate their pseudoscientific belief that vaccines cause autism.
The only consolation I can take thus far is the utterly dismal number of signatures garnered thus far, just over 3,000 of the 100,000 required to get a response from the Trump White House. In other words, I doubt that this petition will have much of an effect, if any, but I know that it’s just one drop in the drip-drip-drip of antivaccine efforts that will be coming during the next for years. Stay frosty, my friends. The battle is just beginning.