Generation Rescue: Rebranding in service of autism grift?

As I was writing about everybody’s favorite über-quack turned über-crank Mike Adams last week, I made a point about how, for him, it’s all about the grift. Indeed, I went so far as to included in the title of my post, “Griftus Interruptus,” the implication being that the banning of his NaturalNews empire from Facebook was an interruption to his grift. Basically, from my viewpoint (and that of medicine and science) exists mainly to do one thing: Sell dubious products whose efficacy is not supported by science, as well as conspiracies whose existence is not supported by evidence. The latter, of course, is a tool to sell the former. After all, if you believe that the CDC is hiding evidence that vaccines cause autism you might be potential customer for the cornucopia of supplements, “detox” treatments, and the like sold on Adams’ site. If you believe that there is a “deep state” conspiracy to take away your guns and crush freedom, you might well be a potential customer for various survivalist gear that Adams sells. Adams, of course, promotes those two false narratives and so many more conspiracies, cleverly jumping onto the Trump bandwagon and embracing alt right conspiracy theories when they became popular during the rise of Trump’s candidacy. Facebook’s decision to ban NaturalNews, of course, didn’t completely interrupt Adams’ grift, but it did cut into his reach. This brings us to Generation Rescue, because I just realized that there was a story by Anna Merlan a week and a half ago showing that this principle doesn’t just apply to people like Mike Adams.

I’ve been following Generation Rescue for a long time now, ever since even shortly after the birth of this blog.. Longtime readers will know that Generation Rescue was formed by investment banker J.B. Handley and his wife Lisa, who believed that mercury in the thimerosal preservative in childhood vaccines had caused their child’s autism. In 2005, they founded Generation Rescue based on the idea that autism was caused by the mercury in the thimerosal used in vaccines until around 2002, which is when the last lots of thimerosal-containing vaccines expired after thimerosal was removed. Two or three years later, as Jenny McCarthy was making a name for herself as an antivaccine activist based on her book, she became the president of Generation Rescue and has been on its board of directors ever since. During that time, in the later part of the first decade of the 21st century, McCarthy appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, published a book (Louder Than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism,) claiming that the MMR vaccine had caused her son Evan’s autism and that she had cured him with “biomedical interventions, and leading a march on Washington to “Green Our Vaccines.” She described Evan’s diagnosis thusly to Oprah in 2007:

Right before his MMR shot, I said to the doctor, I have a very bad feeling about this shot. This is the autism shot, isn’t it? And he said, “No, that is ridiculous. It is a mother’s desperate attempt to blame something on autism.” And he swore at me. . . . And not soon thereafter, I noticed that change in the pictures: Boom! Soul, gone from his eyes.

It’s a frequent narrative that we hear from antivaxers, basically that their “real child” was somehow “stolen” or “taken away” by vaccines. Similarly, his “recovery” is a not uncommon story in which antivaxers confuse correlation with causation because autism is a condition of developmental delay, not stasis, and a not insignificant number of children with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis improve considerably. In any event, it’s a profoundly insulting narrative to autistic people, but it resonated among the antivaxers who supported Generation Rescue, for whom it is an article of faith that “something” in vaccines causes (or at least predisposes) autism and that the child can be “recovered” by “autism biomed” treatments, some of which can be dangerous (e.g., chelation therapy and Miracle Mineral Supplement, the latter of which is in fact a form of bleach). McCarthy became the celebrity face of Generation Rescue, with J.B. Handley running things in the background as she appeared regularly at the yearly autism biomed quackfest Autism One and spewed dangerous misinformation about vaccines hither, thither, and yon, such as what she said in this famous 2009 interview in TIME Magazine:

I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.

Ten years on, I’m amazed at how little antivaccine rhetoric has changed. There’s the same deflection of blame for their actions onto the pharmaceutical companies, particularly in light of what’s happening now that wasn’t happening ten years ago: Massive measles outbreaks in the US. Unfortunately, the return of disease, in this case the measles, hasn’t changed antivaxers’ minds, although states are closing the loophole known as personal belief exemptions that let so many opt out of vaccines “just because” or because, as I like to describe it, “I don’t wanna.”

Ten years ago, Generation Rescue was one of the most prominent antivaccine groups, complete with a celebrity president, Jenny McCarthy, who used to go around with her then boyfriend, comedian Jim Carrey, promoting antivaccine misinformation and autism quackery to “heal vaccine injury” in the form of the horrifically misnamed “autism biomed” while claiming that vaccines have antifreeze and aborted fetal tissue in them. Interestingly, though, in recent years Generation Rescue seems to have gone relatively quiet. First, for reasons that I never figured out, the Autism One quackfest ceased to be affiliated with Generation Rescue a few years ago, and I haven’t paid a lot of attention to Generation Rescue.

Until now.

I’d totally forgotten about this article by Anna Merlan about Generation Rescue, and rereading it sent me to her March article about Generation Rescue. The titles tell you a lot:

The first thing I learned from the more recent of the two articles is that the Generation Rescue website is offline, with a message on a webpage that reads simply, “Stay tuned for what’s next.” Merlan notes:

Even before the site disappeared, there were signs that McCarthy and Generation Rescue hoped to retool the organization into a “functional medicine” nonprofit, rather than one focused on the controversial and non-scientific autism recovery claims they’ve made for years. The apparent rebrand feels almost Goop-esque, a way for McCarthy and the organization to enter a much broader and less clearly defined “wellness” space, where many more kinds of questionable pseudoscience are possible.

My skeptical antennae definitely started twitching, because I remembered immediately something Generation Rescue did in 2007. Remember how I said earlier that Generation Rescue was founded on the idea that mercury in vaccines was The One True Cause of Autism? I’m not kidding. Here’s what Generation Rescue said before the makeover:

Generation Rescue believes that childhood neurological disorders such as autism, Asperger’s, ADHD/ADD, speech delay, sensory integration disorder, and many other developmental delays are all misdiagnoses for mercury poisoning. When you know cause, you can focus on cure. Thousands of parents are curing their children by removing the mercury from their children’s bodies. We want you, the parent, to know the truth.

That’s pretty clear and unambiguous, indeed amazingly so for such a kooky site, don’t you think? It’s the mercury, period, and chelation is the cure!! At least, that was Generation Rescue then. Here’s Generation Rescue said after its first rebranding:

We believe these neurological disorders (“NDs”) are environmental illnesses caused by an overload of heavy metals, live viruses, and bacteria. Proper treatment of our children, known as “biomedical intervention”, is leading to recovery for thousands. The cause of this epidemic of NDs is extremely controversial. We believe the primary causes include the tripling of vaccines given to children in the last 15 years (mercury, aluminum and live viruses); maternal toxic load and prenatal vaccines; heavy metals like mercury in our air, water, and food; and the overuse of antibiotics.

That was the first broadening of Generation Rescue’s message and mission. Basically, Generation Rescue had no choice. Five years after the removal of mercury from the vast majority of childhood vaccines, you’d expect that, if mercury in vaccines really were a major cause of autism, then five years would be long enough to start to see a decline in the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in younger children, given that autism is most frequently diagnosed between ages 3-5. It wasn’t happening. It never happened. So the rebranding was a face-saving maneuver that allowed Generation Rescue to free itself from its One True Cause of Autism while broadening the cause of autism to not just mercury, but to all vaccines, including the ones that never contained thimerosal, and all sorts of vague, environmental “toxins” and “heavy metals.” Indeed, I said at the time about the mercury-autism idea, “Even zealots can’t defend this hypothesis any more,” noting that they’ve learned how to make their ideas about environmental causes of autism so vague, encompassing vague alternative medicine concepts like “toxic loads” and other components of vaccines, that they’re now practically untestable, guaranteeing that the pseudscience can continue to flow for years to come.

Merlan refers to her March report in the newer article noting something about Generation Rescue, an “evolution” if you will, that’s been going on for a while:

Yet there were signs during our reporting that Generation Rescue’s operations were, if not winding down, seeming to shift. A “grant program” that gave families a small financial stipend in order to guide them into GR-approved medical treatments and services — vitamin supplements, two visits with GR’s brand of medical experts, urine and stool analysis — was suspended. McDonald was replaced with Zack Peter, an aspiring podcasting star who’s in his mid-twenties and who has no apparent experience running a nonprofit, though he did previously work as an intern at GR. A yearly conference run by GR, the Autism Education Summit, didn’t happen last year. (At one point, Generation Rescue appears to have also had plans to build an “integrative health clinics” in Illinois and Missouri, plans that, by 2017, had ground to a halt.) GR also appeared to be quietly taking steps away from describing itself as an organization primarily concerned with autism. On Facebook the organization’s bio still reads, “Generation Rescue is the leading national organization that provides hope, information and immediate treatment assistance to families affected by autism spectrum disorders.” But around April, the group’s Twitter bio changed: the descriptor no longer uses the word “autism” at all. Instead, it read “Leading national nonprofit dedicated to providing access to the latest research and solutions in functional medicine to raise healthy families.”

So, first Generation Rescue stepped away from the rigid idea that mercury in vaccines is what causes autism and that neurodevelopmental disorders are “all misdiagnoses for mercury poisoning.” Twelve years later, as it has become ever more clear, from a scientific standpoint, that vaccines do not increase the risk of autism spectrum disorder, Generation Rescue seems to have started to undergo a new rebrand to cease to be just an “autism charity.” And get a load of the Elevated Summit, the Generation Rescue event held in May with McCarthy as a featured speaker.

For instance, there’s Will Cole, a chiropractor whom we’ve met before. Basically, he’s heavily into “functional medicine,” or, as I like to put it, “Have your doctor run a bunch of useless functional medicine tests.” As I’ve discussed more times than I can remember, functional medicine claims to get at the “root cause” of disease by basically running every test in the book, validated, unvalidated, uncertain, or downright quacky, after which the functional medicine practitioner will try to correct every abnormal lab value he finds. Whatever value “functional medicine” might have, it is only in small overlaps with conventional medicine. It’s basically quackery that forgets what every intern is taught, namely to treat the patient, not the lab values, that you shouldn’t order lab values unless they are directed by clinical indications, and that if you order 100 lab values, chances are very high that at least five of them will be abnormal by random chance alone.

The other speakers were no better:

  • David Foss. A chirorpctor who likes to adjust newborns and believes in “detox” and hyperbaric oxygen for indications for which there is no scientific support.
  • Rajka Milanovic, MD and Peter Kozlowski, MD. More functional medicine quacks, whom I might have to look into more. Dr. Kozlowski bragss about having trained with Mark Hyman and Deepak Chopra. This is not something to be proud of.
  • Ernesto Gutierrez, MD, a.k.a. “The Stem Cell Guy.” Great, another stem cell quack.
  • Jess Peatross, MD. She’s a trifecta of quackery: A Gerson therapy practitioner, a cannabis therapy practitioner, and a functional medicine doctor.
  • Habib Sadeghi, DO. He tops even Dr. Peatross in quackery, specializing in “multi-disciplinary treatment for chronic illnesses that include osteopathic, anthroposophical, environmental, psychosomatic, family, and German new medicine, as well as clinical pharmacology.” German New Medicine and anthroposophic medicine? Holy quackery, Batman!
  • Jared Skowron, ND. Here we go with another “Not-a-Doctor” naturopath who boasts of using “natural therapies” for autism.
  • Peter Sullivan. He’s the founder and CEO of Clear Light Ventures, Inc., and uses detox and believes in “electromagnetic field sensitivity.”
  • Terry Wahls, MD. She’s actually a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa, showing how low quackademic medicine will go. She claims to have cured her multiple sclerosis with primarily diet. Let’s just say that neither Steve Novella nor I found her anecdote credible.

As Merlan drily notes about this “evolution” of Generation Rescue:

A cynic would suggest that there’s more money in a broad and vague set of “cutting edge treatments and therapies to heal the autoimmune spectrum” than there is in focusing solely on autism. On their website, the Elevated Health Summit promised its sponsors and potential sponsors access to women aged 35-44 who are “sassy, savvy and health-conscious,” and who have “key buying power/influence.”

Very Goop-like indeed.

Even more Goop-like is how Merlan described Generation Rescue in her earlier report:

Camel’s milk. B12 lollipops. Hyperbaric oxygen chambers. “Ion-cleansing” foot baths. Chelation therapy. Gluten-free diets. Casein-free diets. Massive doses of nutritional supplements. All of these products and services have two things in common. First, mainstream (and widely trusted) medical bodies don’t recognize them as a reputable or effective treatment for autism. Second, they’re all recommended by—and in some cases sold outright through—Generation Rescue, a charity for autistic kids and their families whose board president and most famous face is actress Jenny McCarthy. A deep dive into the world of Generation Rescue has revealed that the organization doesn’t just promote ineffective or medically unproven or downright debunked treatments for autism (all of which has been demonstrated before): The organization and the people associated with it profit from them, too. In two cases, Generation Rescue has heavily promoted products owned by past board members, at the time they served on the board: hyperbaric oxygen chambers and B12 lollipops, both of which have been presented on GR’s website as near-miraculous treatments for symptoms of autism. In another case, Generation Rescue has lavishly praised and promoted products made by a corporate sponsor—the maker of a ionic footbath that supposedly “cleanses” “toxins” from the body—without directly revealing the company’s business relationship with GR. Families can also apply for “grants” from Generation Rescue, which funnels them into receiving treatment—and buying more products—from handpicked naturopathic doctors and GR partner organizations.

The details are definitely worth reading further in her article. It’s just another bit of evidence how, be it Alex Jones, Mike Adams, Jenny McCarthy, or anyone spreading conspiracy theories and promoting quackery, it’s all about the grift. Even if it wasn’t about the grift in the beginning, as was likely the case for Generation Rescue, eventually it becomes about the grift. It’s a common evolution.