The Autism Debate: Who's Afraid of Jenny McCarthy?

Parents of autistic children call Jenny McCarthy an inspiration, but doctors say she's a menace to public health. How a former Playmate and television loudmouth became one of the most feared mothers in America

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Jeff Minton for TIME

Jenny McCarthy

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This message has won her a wide audience, based on her three best-selling books on autism. She has just completed shooting the pilot for a daytime talk show for Oprah Winfrey's TV network to begin airing later this year--which will be, she promises, yet another platform for her message. But her profile has also made her, among pediatricians, other doctors and many parents, a deeply polarizing figure. Though close to 80% of American children receive the standard battery of vaccinations, skepticism about their safety remains widespread, in part because of the antiscientific clamor of the McCarthy camp. Enough parents are refusing to vaccinate that some long-dormant maladies, like measles and meningitis, have re-emerged. Nonvaccination rates among kindergartners in some California counties have been reported at 10%. To McCarthy's opponents, from the public-health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to the pediatricians of the American Academy of Pediatrics, this makes McCarthy much worse than a crank: she's a menace to public health.

But she can't be ignored. If the debate about vaccine safety is settled--vaccines don't cause autism; they don't injure children; they are the pillar of modern public health--then why are so many parents reconsidering vaccinating their children? The answer has to do with our era's strained relationship with scientific truth, our tendency to place more faith in psychological truths than scientific ones. McCarthy's emergence--the Playmate turned pseudoscientist, the fart-joke teller cum mother warrior--can make one feel nostalgic for the time when celebs turned up on talk shows only to hawk their flicks or books, not to promote explosive public-health ideas. But McCarthy says she is speaking the truth--her truth.

It goes something like this: in McCarthy's world, there is scientific truth and there is emotional truth. There is the fact of a mother looking into her son's eyes and knowing something has gone very wrong and the fact of about two dozen studies showing no link between vaccines and autism. There is the truth of the parents and the truth of the doctors. And she believes that some truths are more equal than others. "She's a mom," says her boyfriend, actor Jim Carrey. "That's what she is. That's her truth." It all sounds so reasonable, expressed by the charming, gamine Jenny McCarthy. And this is what makes her dangerous.

'Try Everything'

The catholic girl from Chicago who got her start as a Playboy model was the second of four daughters of a steel-mill-foreman father and courtroom-custodian mother. She attended Mother McAuley High School. "It can be hard for the cute girl," she recalls. "I was blond, cute, broke. I was beat up. I was thrown inside lockers. I was burned with cigarettes. My hair was lit on fire." To earn money for college--she studied nursing at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale--she sent her photos to Playboy and was Miss October and eventually Playmate of the Year in 1994. Her subsequent career as a comedian and actress took her through MTV game shows, her own sitcom and various roles in B movies. She is now probably more famous as an advocate for her views on autism than she ever was as an actress, and it has given her a power out of proportion to her show-business success.

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