Barbara Loe Fisher cries “McCarthyism!” over vaccines

I’m back from NECSS, having given a talk about cancer quackery, social media, and fake news and taken part in two panels, one on the measles outbreaks (with Paul Offit on the panel!) and one about the marketing of pseudoscience in medicine. Overall, it was a fun time, but I’ve been home since Monday afternoon, and it’s time to get back to business. Fortunately, I didn’t haves to look far to find a—shall we say?—target rich bit of antivaccine nonsense to get me warmed up again and into the swing of things again before diving into more difficult topics. Leave it to the grand dame of the antivaccine movement, Barbara Loe Fisher, to give me yet another gift of blogging material, and, Barbara being Barbara, it’s hilariously overwrought as usual, although, unlike last year’s rant, it isn’t as well-timed to coincide with the Fourth of July, the better to equate school vaccine mandates with incipient fascism (as she likes to do), this time around Fisher decries Freedom to dissent and the new blacklist in America. She published her little rant, of course, on Joe Mercola’s website, and, hilariously, has a little oval with a checkmark and the words “Fact Checked” underneath the title of the article. Even better, the button is a link, and if you click on the link, you’ll see three checks next to the words, “fact-checked,” “vetted,” and “verified,” followed by:

All Mercola articles are fact-checked, vetted and verified using Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists journalism standards. Because we hold ourselves to the highest level of excellence and take responsibility for our work, we also follow industry best practices as recommended by the American Copy Editors Society for editing, proofing, writing and content. We follow ethics principles recommended by the Associated Press Media Editors, and we even have adopted Associated Press style guidelines to distinguish our writing style from other health sites. Therefore, when it comes to the topics we cover, we fact check every claim we make, and clearly identify sources, vet the people we interview and write about, and verify all medical information with referenced, hyperlinked, medical literature sources. We do use news hooks gathered from mainstream print and broadcast media, but we don’t rush to print our version of the story in the name of a “scoop.” Instead, we take time to investigate the article topic and dig deeper than what you see in other health and news sites — including mainstream news media — asking ourselves: Are the quotes accurate? Is there a backstory the news source missed that we need to share with our readers? Is the article accurate and honest? To that end, we investigate the authors of medical and environmental studies headlined in the news so we can tell you what conflicts of interest they may have that could bias whatever it is they’re reporting. Because we also act as a watchdog over Big Industry and government, we take special care to look at the funding of studies and the lobbying behind legislation so we can expose questionable financial liaisons that ultimately affect your health and health care.

I included so much of the “fact-checked” claim because it was so damned hilarious to read. Of course, it all sounds so fantastic, but, as anyone who’s read antivaccine or quack websites (or conspiracy websites, of which these are a subset), it’s very easy to lie with verifiable facts. Facts are important, and getting them right is important, but the story being told is at least as important, and howe the facts are arranged determines the story. Let’s just say that it’s all well and good that articles are “fact checked,” but once you look at this screed you’ll find that it’s not nearly as big a deal as Mercola tries to make it sound.

In any case, here’s the video:

Fortunately, I didn’t have to watch any more of the video than I could stand, because, as usual, Fisher provided me with a helpful transcript, which I can quote and comment on as I wish. Even though it’s nearly two weeks after the Fourth of July, not surprisingly, Fisher tries to equate her antivax views with Freedom. What? You don’t like her antivax views? Then you must hate Freedom! That’s why she immediately invokes—what else?—the Declaration of Independence:

Every July 4 since our nation declared independence in 1776, Americans have celebrated this truth:

“… that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”1

The Declaration of Independence rejected unjust laws imposed by a privileged ruling class. The guiding principles of the Declaration of Independence were codified into the Bill of Rights to limit the power of government and protect our unalienable natural rights.

This leads to an invocation of—of course!—the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech, religion, the press, and assembly. I’m sure you can see where this is going, and go there it does as Fisher next invokes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights published in 1948, which invokes the same freedoms, as well as the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and freedom from arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. In typical Barbara Loe Fisher fashion, she really lays it on thick. I mean, Barbara Loe Fisher loves to lay it on thick. You won’t believe just how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly thick she likes to lay it on. I mean, you may think the nonsense is thick over at Age of Autism, but that’s just peanuts compared to Barbara Loe Fisher. Want to know what I mean? Are you sure about that? OK, I’ll give you just a little taste first, and see if you can stand the rest, which you can always read for yourself:

An unprecedented attack on civil liberties and the right to dissent is being led by a new privileged ruling class whose power is not derived from aristocratic titles, wealth and political influence linked to genetic heritage and ownership of land. The power of the new ruling class in America is derived from academic titles, wealth and political influence linked to corporatized government that seeks ownership of our physical bodies. The right to autonomy and protection of bodily integrity is the first human right.19,20 If you cannot voluntarily decide when and for what reason you are willing to risk your life or the life of your child, your unalienable right to life and liberty has been taken from you.

This is, of course, the thickest of thick bullshit. No one is “seeking ownership of our physical bodies” (at least not with respect to vaccines, although I might argue that the evangelical conservatives trying to eliminate reproductive health services like abortion and certain kinds of birth control could be argued to be trying to control women’s bodies). Moreover, notice how, as with most antivaxers, it is all about them and their rights over everything. The consideration that the child is an autonomous being with rights of his own who deserves protection from the state when the parents medically neglect him never even enters her head. Make no mistake, failure to vaccinate is medical neglect, as children have the right not to be unnecessarily exposed to potentially deadly vaccine-preventable diseases. Obviously, antivaxers don’t see it that way. Rather, they seem to see children as extensions of themselves whose rights are completely subsumed to theirs. It’s not for nothing that Senator Rand Paul, who is very antivaccine, his denials notwithstanding, said four years ago, “The state doesn’t own the children. Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom.”

Fisher is clearly trying to appeal beyond her antivax base, though, as she frames her argument as all about censorship and repealing of civil liberties that should concern everyone, “whether you do or do not agree that every liability free vaccine product sold by pharmaceutical companies is safe and effective, or that federal vaccine policy is anchored with sound science, or that mandatory vaccination laws without informed consent protections are moral.” Of course, that last bit is a typical antivaccine straw man, because the antivaccine version of “informed consent” is in reality misinformed consent, where the risks of vaccines are vastly exaggerated or made up altogether and the benefits downplayed or denied.

How, pray tell, are these nefarious fascistic vaccine zealots going to snuff out health freedom and send their jack-booted thugs to your home in the middle of the night in order to forcibly vaccinated their child? Oh, wait. They’re not doing anything of the sort. They’re just requiring that children need to be vaccinated before they can attend school unless they have a medical contraindication and that exemptions other than medical should no longer be permitted. They’re also trying to combat antivaccine misinformation on social media. You wouldn’t know this from Fisher, though, who’s amusingly histrionic:

The extraordinary efforts by industry, medical trade and government to delegitimize free speech about vaccination unless it conforms with government policy has given a green light to corporate-owned mainline media outlets to use name calling and other yellow journalism techniques to legitimize the stripping of civil liberties from public health laws. Today, any parent, doctor, research scientist, journalist, celebrity, politician, philanthropist or nongovernmental organization asking questions about the quality of vaccine science or the ethics of laws requiring use of a liability-free pharmaceutical product that can harm or fail to work, is immediately labeled as an “anti-vaxxer” and publicly defamed, humiliated, discredited and relentlessly targeted for personal and professional ruin. When the risks of vaccination turn out to be 100% for a child and parents describe what happened, their suffering is magnified when journalists gaslight them for witnessing in the public square. It is a shameful display of ignorance and prejudice against biologically vulnerable children and their parents who have been compelled to unequally bear the risks of vaccination for society, and are being demonized for advocating for safer vaccines and more scientifically informed and humane public health policies. Most of all, it is a dangerous assault on freedom of speech by a profession that should be pushing back on discrimination and the erosion of civil liberties, not actively condoning it.

I couldn’t resist looking at some of the references Fisher cited to back up this “assault on civil liberties.” (I deleted them from the quote above for ease of reading, but you can find them in the original article.) For instance, the bit about being “defamed” by journalists goes back to 2010 with Amy Wallace, who wrote an article about Paul Offit and the relentless attacks by antivaxers he had been enduring for years (and is still enduring). What Fisher failed to mention is that Wallace became the subject of a misogynistic attack by Generation Rescue founder J.B. Handley, in which he implied that she must have been under the effects of a date rape drug to have written such an article about Dr. Offit. See what I mean about “fact checking”? If you read Wallace’s article, you’ll find no defamation, and Fisher conveniently forgets to mention that antivaxers are far more nasty than science advocates ever get.

Another example are the references after being labeled “antivaxer.” It consists of a bunch of links to definitions of “antivaxer” and this cartoon:

Which is actually a pretty funny cartoon.

And so it goes. The part about being “humiliated” links to an article by Jinny Suh in Cosmopolitan entitled, People Who Don’t Vaccinate Their Kids Are Selfish. I find it rather amusing that a woman who’s repeatedly compared people like Paul Offit and other science and vaccine advocates to Nazis is so triggered by justified criticism of their belief in pseudoscience. She also cites a recent American Osteopathic Association survey that found that 45% of adults had “doubts” about vaccine safety. Of course, it’s not as bad as that, as the survey itself shows, where only 2% answered that they thought vaccines are unsafe and ineffective; 6% thought the risks of vaccines outweigh the benefits; and 9% were unsure, while overall 82% answered either that they thought vaccines were safe and effective (51%) or that the benefits of vaccination outweigh risks (31%). Those numbers of vaccine doubters are certainly reason for concern, but they’re nowhere near 45% of adults. So how did the AOA get that 45% figure? The survey asked, “Which of the following have caused you to doubt the safety of vaccines?” The answers included online articles, content on social media, past actions of big pharma, past actions of the government, and several other choices. If you total up all the things that made adults doubt the safety of vaccines, it added up to 45% of adults. See how that’s very different from saying that 45% of adults actually doubt vaccines?

Fisher is also unhappy at efforts to try to slow the spread of antivaccine misinformation on social media. She references the outbreak in the orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn, portraying the observations that the Jewish religion does not oppose vaccination (quite the opposite, in fact) as a lie pushed by pharmaceutical industry lobbyists:

Many of the lobbyists argued that no major religion has a tenet opposing vaccination, even though vaccine products were not being mandated by governments until long after the world’s major religions were founded. In addition, the U.S. Constitution prohibits our government from requiring citizens holding sincere personal spiritual or religious beliefs to identify with an organized religion or be a member of a certain church in order to receive equal protection under the law.

Many things have been invented since the world’s major religions were founded, and that’s never stopped them from telling their adherents what they can and can’t do with them. Moreover, these orthodox Jews do identify with an organized religion and specifically invoked it. Be that as it may, the question of whether there is a religious right to refuse vaccination was settled long ago by the Supreme Court in 1905 in Jacobson v. Massachusetts. That never stopped antivaxers from invoking “religious freedom” as their excuse not to vaccinate.

Fisher then goes on:

About 75% of the New York measles cases have been confirmed in unvaccinated persons with the majority living in orthodox Jewish communities holding sincere religious beliefs opposing the use of vaccines. About 97% of children attending kindergarten in New York have received two doses of MMR vaccine compared to more than 94% of school children nationally.

Well, yeah, Ms. Fisher. That’s how it works. Pockets of low MMR vaccine uptake in a sea of high uptake still leave the children living in those pockets vulnerable to the measles. She also uses a bit of misdirection, noting that adults with waning or low immunity have contributed to outbreaks. That was, in fact, true of the outbreak in the orthodox Jewish community in southeast Michigan. But guess what? That community, far from resisting vaccination, immediately cooperated with health authorities and set up vaccination drives. The rabbis and Jewish authorities told the Jews under their spiritual charge that it was their obligation to be vaccinated and, if feeling ill, to see their doctor, stay home from synagogue, and not risk exposing others. In any event, that little diversion doesn’t change the fact that fear of vaccines, stoked by antivaccine misinformation, is contributing to parents not vaccinating to the point where in some communities there are outbreaks.

Fisher, having used all the Nazi analogies she can over the last couple of years to describe vaccine mandates, decides to conclude by mixing it up a little bit:

The litmus test question is: “Are you or have you ever been anti-vaccine?” If you hesitate, qualify your answer, express doubt or admit to being currently or previously associated with a person or organization labeled as “anti-vaccine,” it is over. You are publicly condemned as an “anti-vaxxer” and a danger to society for infecting others with your opinions, values and beliefs. You are blacklisted and turned into a horrible warning for any person like you who is even thinking about speaking up. Often people recant or throw their friends and colleagues under the bus when threatened with excommunication from society for being labeled “anti-vaccine.” There was another dark era in American history during the mid-20th century, known as the “blacklist” or “McCarthy” era, when government officials operated in a climate of fear under a perceived state of emergency that was used to justify taking extreme measures in the name of protecting national security. Beginning in 1947 through 1954, federal legislators suspected there were “communist sympathizers” in government agencies and working in the fields of journalism and entertainment.

Yep, the current climate isn’t just like Nazi Germany to Fisher (a comparison she has used again and again). It’s also like McCarthyism, except with antivaxers rather than Communists. (Of course, it amuses me that she’s basically comparing herself to Communists or people suspected of being Communists.) In the end, though, all that matters to antivaxers is being able to claim the mantle of persecution in order to gain sympathy. They did it by abusing the Yellow Star of David; so I suppose claiming McCarthyism is dialing it down slightly for them.