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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Well before McCarthy's son was diagnosed, that was the course most parents were following anyway. I recall my parents in the 1970s trying out a range of therapies and various diets for my younger brother Noah, a low-functioning adult autistic: everything from chiropractic adjustments to megavitamin doses to copper bracelets. McCarthy was the first celebrity to embrace this approach publicly and to hit the airwaves pep-talking mothers to never give up. That is what she tells those parents who seek her out here at Generation Rescue--and the 200,000 mothers she has met on her various autism tours and speaking engagements.

Of course, McCarthy is not a doctor. She really has only the one prescription: hope. And then parents should try every treatment out there until they find one that works. She is careful to avoid the word cure, always using recovery. "I look at autism like a bus accident, and you don't become cured from a bus accident, but you can recover," she says.

The Persistence of Hope

It is precisely that word that makes her views incendiary. "Recovery" from what, exactly? The treatments promoted by McCarthy purport to treat an injury, specifically one to the immune or digestive system of the autistic child--and the agent that activists like McCarthy most commonly point to as the cause of the injury is the MMR vaccine. The antivaccine movement has by now gone through numerous iterations in trying to explain how autism happens. The latest alleged culprit is the sheer number of vaccines: at least 10 administered, in 26 shots, during a child's first 36 months. Each of these theories has been thoroughly discredited by scientific research, but that has done nothing to silence McCarthy and her Generation Rescue colleagues. "Come and see our kids," says McCarthy. "Why won't the CDC come and talk to the mothers, talk to the families? Then tell us there isn't a link."

For all her bravado, McCarthy prefers to cast herself as a voice of moderation. She claims her goal is to move the debate toward what she sees as the middle, where more research dollars are poured into alternative treatments and the search for an environmental cause. (A great deal of research is currently focused on finding a genetic cause.) She has backed off from her most heated rhetoric and says she is now not against all vaccines but is in favor of studying them further and modifying the schedule by which they are administered. The problem is that every study has shown there is no correlation between vaccines and autism and that the risk of injury from vaccination is far lower than the risk of disease from being unvaccinated. Alison Singer of the Autism Science Foundation bemoans the potential loss of research into causes and treatments for autism because of continued preoccupation with the vaccine issue. "I felt that 22 vaccine studies were enough," she says. "Given that we don't have unlimited resources, it made sense to say we looked at vaccines and found no causal relationship." McCarthy, she goes on to say, "has been very successful at bringing the politics into the science."

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