A Jenny McCarthy Reader, Pt. 2: Jenny brings her anti-vaccine views to Oprah

Note: Earlier today, Jenny McCarthy was officially named as a new co-host of the popular daytime talk show The View. As many people have already noted, this is an extremely unfortunate move on ABC’s part: It’s giving the network’s imprimatur to someone who has worked, methodically and relentlessly, to undermine public health. 

In (dis)honor of McCarthy’s new perch, I’ve decided to post a chapter of my book The Panic Virus titled “Jenny McCarthy’s Mommy Instinct” on the blog. Since it’s well over 5,000 words, I broke it up; this part (the second of four) is about Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of McCarthy’s anti-vaccine views. The first part was about the McCarthy’s rise to fame and her embrace of the “Crystal Children” philosophy; Part 3 is titled Jenny legitimizes the scientific fringe,”  and Part 4 is “The real dangers in following Jenny’s advice.” 

jenny-oprah original

In 2005, McCarthy contacted Lisa Ackerman, the mother who’d founded Talk About Curing Autism five years earlier. “Jenny was looking for information to help her son Evan, who was recently diagnosed,” Ackerman wrote in an essay titled “TACA and Jenny McCarthy.” “Jenny is an extraordinary mom. She ran with every bit of information that she gleaned from TACA’s website, individual mentoring and community outreach efforts and was back when she needed more. As Evan improved Jenny kept good on her promise to get involved.” In fact, McCarthy got so involved that she donated a portion of the proceeds from Life Laughs, which was released in April 2006, to the organization.

Shortly thereafter, McCarthy told Ackerman she’d decided to write her next book about autism—and, McCarthy vowed, when it came out she’d publicize it on The Oprah Winfrey Show.The narrative for this latest project would be in stark contrast to the Crystal Child one McCarthy had been promoting on The Tonight Show and in newspaper interviews: Now, McCarthy said, her mistreatment at the hands of Evan’s doctors had begun when she’d tried to discuss with them her concerns about vaccines. The only two constants of McCarthy’s competing story lines were her refusal to let the medical establishment victimize her and her promise of succor to anyone who followed her path. “I say, Okay, let’s look at your choices,” she says of the message she’s currently pitching to the public. “You have a choice of listening to the medical community, which offers no hope, or you can listen to our community, which offers hope. . . . O ur side at least gives you . . . somewhere to go.”

True to her word, on September 18, 2007, one day after Louder than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism was released, McCarthy appeared as a guest on Oprah. That afternoon, with Ackerman looking on from the second row of the studio audience, McCarthy told Winfrey that her latest journey had begun with a flash of insight that sounded similarly dramatic to the one that had occurred in 2006 when a stranger told McCarthy that her son was a Crystal Child—except this epiphany had taken place two years earlier, when McCarthy awoke one morning with a terrifying premonition that something was wrong. Shortly thereafter, Evan, who was around two years old at the time, had the first in a series of what McCarthy described as life-threatening seizures. For months, McCarthy said, her requests for help for her child were dismissed by every doctor she approached. (At times, McCarthy said, this condescension would mutate into rage: She claimed that one pediatrician had become so incensed by her insistent questioning that he shouted at her to “leave the hospital— now!”) It wasn’t until Evan suffered a near-fatal heart attack that he was properly diagnosed as autistic—and even then, McCarthy said, she wasn’t offered any help or support. “I got the, ‘Sorry, your son has autism’ [speech],” she told Winfrey. “I didn’t get the here’s-what-todo- next pamphlet.”

Winfrey, who praised Louder than Words as “beautiful” and “riveting,” didn’t ask McCarthy why she hadn’t mentioned the seizures or the screaming doctors or the heart attack during her Indigo phase, when she’d claimed that treating Evan for a behavioral disorder would be akin to “taking away all the beautiful characteristics he came into this world with.” In fact, neither Winfrey—nor, seemingly, anyone else—asked McCarthy about her prior involvement with the Indigo movement at all. Instead, Winfrey praised McCarthy’s unwillingness to bow to authority, her faith in herself, and her use of the Internet as a tool for bypassing society’s traditional gatekeepers:

McCarthy: First thing I did—Google. I put in autism. And I started my research.

Winfrey: Thank God for Google.

McCarthy: I’m telling you. winfrey: Thank God for Google.

McCarthy: The University of Google is where I got my degree from. . . . And I put in autism and something came up that changed my life, that led me on this road to recovery, which said autism—it was in the corner of the screen—is reversible and treatable. And I said, What?! That has to be an ad for a hocus pocus thing, because if autism is reversible and treatable, well, then it would be on Oprah.

The ad McCarthy saw was for a wheat- and dairy-free diet. Within weeks of her putting Evan on this new regimen, McCarthy said, he’d doubled his language, his eye contact improved, he began smiling more, and he became more affectionate. “Once you detox them,” McCarthy said, “your kids are going to get better. You’re cleaning up their gut. You’re cleaning up their brain. There is a connection.”

Winfrey nodded in agreement—but how, she asked, did McCarthy know to try this specific diet as opposed to the “fifty other things” that showed up online?

McCarthy: Mommy instinct.

Winfrey: Mommy instinct.

McCarthy: Mommy instinct. . . . I went, okay—I know my kid. . . . I know what’s going on in his body, so this is what makes sense to me. . . .

Winfrey: Okay—so this is what Jenny says really worked for her. It doesn’t mean it will work for all children. . . . It worked for her. This is her book. She wrote the book. So she knows what she’s talking about.

As it turned out, Mommy instinct had done more than just show McCarthy which of the many alternative “biomedical” treatments she should pursue—it had also given her insight into what had made Evan sick in the first place. Winfrey, in much the manner she’d done with Katie Wright five months earlier, prompted McCarthy to share that information with the audience:

Winfrey: So what do you think triggered the autism? I know you have a theory.

McCarthy: I do have a theory.

Winfrey: Mom instinct.

McCarthy: Mommy instinct. You know, everyone knows the stats, which being one in one hundred and fifty children have autism.

Winfrey: It used to be one in ten thousand.

McCarthy: And, you know, what I have to say is this: What number does it have to be? What number will it take for people just to start listening to what the mothers of children who have autism have been saying for years? Which is that we vaccinated our baby and something happened. . . . 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.

At that point, Winfrey picked up an index card. “Of course,” she said, “we talked to the Centers for Disease Control and asked them whether or not there is a link between autism and childhood vaccinations. And here’s what they said.” As she started to read, the screen filled with text.

We simply don’t know what causes most cases of autism, but we’re doing everything we can to find out. The vast majority of science to date does not support an association between thimerosal in vaccines and autism. . . . It is important to remember, vaccines protect and save lives.

When Winfrey appeared back on screen, she turned to McCarthy, who was ready with a response: “My science is named Evan, and he’s at home. That’s my science.” There was little question that Winfrey’s sympathies lay with the “mother warrior” who’d written a “beautiful new book” about how she’d cured her son of a supposedly incurable disease as opposed to the faceless bureaucracy that couldn’t provide any answers.

Before the end of the show, Winfrey told viewers that McCarthy would be available to answer questions for anyone who logged on to a “special [online] message board just for this show so you can share your stories.” One fan asked McCarthy what she would do if she could do it all over again. “The universe didn’t mean for me to do anything else besides what I did,” McCarthy answered, “but if I had another child, I would not vaccinate.” A mother wrote in to say that she had decided not to give her child the MMR vaccine “due to the autism link.” McCarthy was delighted. “I’m so proud you followed your mommy instinct,” she wrote.

Within a week of her appearance on Oprah, during which time McCarthy had also broken the news about her relationship with the comedian Jim Carrey, McCarthy had repeated her story on Larry King Live and Good Morning America. On those three shows alone, she reached between fifteen and twenty million viewers—and that wasn’t including people who watched repeats or saw the clips online. Print publications told her story as well: People, which is one of the largest general interest magazines in the country, ran an excerpt from Louder than Words under the headline, “My Autistic Son: A Story of Hope.” Jenny - PeopleThe media blitz’s effects were felt immediately. Ackerman, who’d appointed McCarthy as TACA’s celebrity spokesperson in June, said the group was so swamped with e‑mails from parents pleading for information about how to cure their children that it scrapped its more cautious expansion plans and went national that fall. “Had to,” she said. “Jenny forced us.”

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11 Responses to A Jenny McCarthy Reader, Pt. 2: Jenny brings her anti-vaccine views to Oprah

  1. This post, as the entire series on McCarthy, is fascinating.
    As european, I’ve never heard this story, but it certainly shades light to why people keep being so sceptic (negative term) towards medical establishment.
    This sentence takes it all:
    “There was little question that Winfrey’s sympathies lay with the “mother warrior” who’d written a “beautiful new book” about how she’d cured her son of a supposedly incurable disease as opposed to the faceless bureaucracy that couldn’t provide any answers”
    Great post!

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  4. Dr. Amy says:

    It’s worth trying to figure out WHY McCarthy’s words resonated to the point where people are now dying from pertussis and measles. As a pediatrician, I see a disconnect between why we give shots (preventing death, disability) and how we give shots (be quiet, don’t embarrass yourself, this is good for them, accept). The truth is, physicians were born in a pre-1983 era when we only got 6 shots before age 6. Older people aren’t conditioned to have needle fear. Since 2000, we’re giddy with lifesaving, and now give 30 – 36 shots. The rate of needlephobia has risen from 25% (Hamilton 1995) to 63% among children (Taddio, 2012). Of course mommy instinct feels like there’s something “wrong” with shots – but it’s not what’s in them. People don’t refuse oral vaccines. I believe it’s that as healthcare workers we’re not listening or giving voice to the fact that a lifelong fear of needles is important. And valid. And preventable. Not every kid is prone to developing this fear, but the parent’s anxiety is partially predictive. For those kids and parents, making the experience empowering rather than emasculating or eviscerating is critical. Saying “cowboy up” to patients and “what a wimp” behind their backs isn’t helping our patients. We need to understand and explore this issue rather than ridiculing, or “mommy instinct discomfort” will continue to manifest as dangerous rationalizations and vaccine avoidance rather than productive changes in research and policy.

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  8. This article is fascinating to me. Given all the medical information and misinformation that is available on the web, it is easy to see how parents get so confused and their fears become reality in their own minds. Parents are desperate for their children and happy. That is definitely demonstrated by Jenny McCarthy in this article.

  9. John Q Public says:

    i became very interested in this topic recently when a friend of mine informed me that the school systems here in SW Ohio will allow kids to attend without being vaccinated. i had assumed that schools would not allow that but i was wrong.

    my next question was, what ARE the vaccination rates at my local schools? in researching this question, i came across Dr Robert Sears’ “The Vaccine Book”. i asked around and anecdotal evidence suggests that this book is widely read among the educated non-vaxxers in my area.

    what is interesting about Sears’ book is that he is NOT anti-vaccine. he reinforces to his readers that vaccines save lives, and that if enough people stopped vaccinating then the old dreaded childhood diseases would return. he even gives a decent explanation of herd immunity. and yet, his book is still essentially an argument for its readers not to vaccinate their kids.

    He writes, “Obviously, the more kids who are vaccinated, the better our country is protected and the less likely it is that any child will die from a disease. Some parents, however, aren’t willing to risk the very rare side effects of vaccines, so they choose to skip the shots. Their children benefit from herd immunity… without risking the vaccines themselves. Is this selfish? Perhaps. But as parents you have to decide. … Can we fault parents for putting their own child’s health ahead of the other kids’ around him?”

    Sears also writes: “I also warn [parents] not to share their fears with their neighbors because if too many people avoid the MMR, we’ll likely see the diseases increase significantly.”

    In other words, Sears is telling his readers that the smart play is to lower your risk by a tiny amount by increasing everybody else’s risk by a tiny amount. Oh, and don’t forget to lie about it because if everybody did what I’m telling you to do, there would be disastrous consequences.

    The Takeaway: it is no longer sufficient to characterize the vaccine debate as being between pro-vaxers and anti-vaxers. if the popularity of Dr Sears’ book is any indication, it is likely that there is now a group of parents who are all for everyone else vaxing but don’t vax themselves. and they are also likely to lie to their neighbor’s about this because admitting to it would defeat the advantage they believe they are getting by this behavior.

    i therefore suggest a new term: non-vaxers. these are parents who do not deny the value of vaxing but see a possible benefit to themselves in being one of only a very few who do not vaccinate.

    all of this raises a brand new question for us: now many non-vaxers are there? the first impulse is to simply chase down a published vax rate number for local school systems and go from there. however, this number is only going to reflect the % of parents at a school who claimed a vax exemption. but these would be anti-vaxers. for a variety of reasons, non-vaxers might be tempted to simply submit a fudged school vax form. this would show up as a completed vax in the published school rate number, so we can’t trust that number.

    the next question then is: what efforts are public health officials (in my state) making to verify that the vax records submitted to schools by parents are legitimate?

    if you have read down this far, and agree that the questions i have raised here are indeed compelling ones, then i would urge you to write a letter to your congressman to ask him or her these questions. if they get enough calls and letters about this question, they may begin poking around themselves to get answers. and this is really what we need here, official recognition that the system has no teeth.

    i am not sure where i stand on whether or not the state should be able to compel every parent to vaccinate their children. this is a pretty sketchy area in terms of civil liberties. however i personally believe that all schools should require them for children to attend. and i certainly believe that public schools should do so. and lastly, i absolutely believe that parents should have a right to know what the vaccination rate is among the student body at their child’s school, and by extension that the state has an obligation to ensure that the rate they are telling parents who ask is based on verified data.

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