ABC has confirmed that actress Jenny McCarthy is joining The View in September, replacing conservative co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck, who left for a job at Fox News. McCarthy has plenty of admirers — founding View co-host Barbara Walters has praised her intelligence and warmth. Others suggest her looks (she's a former Playboy model) and sense of humor (she has had many comedy roles) make her a natural fit for the talk show, where the hosts and guests trade banter about everything from shoes to politics.
Still, McCarthy's hiring has provoked an avalanche of criticism. Why the outrage? McCarthy's now 11-year-old son, Evan, was diagnosed with autism in 2005, and she blames vaccines he was given as a baby. "Think of autism like a fart," she once put it, "and vaccines are the finger you pull to make it happen." She has publicly urged parents not to vaccinate their children, and her critics say that is bad — and potentially deadly — advice.
McCarthy is a supporter of Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor who conducted a 1998 study linking the MMR (Measles, Mumps, and Rubella) vaccine with autism. Many parents bought his theory — that mercury in thimerosol, a preservative in the vaccine, triggered autism — and vaccination rates began dropping.
The trouble is, Wakefield was discredited after his work was found to have been based on fraudulent data. He was stripped of his license to practice medicine in the U.K. in 2010. Other studies have uncovered no evidence of a connection between vaccines and autism.
Yet McCarthy continues her campaign. She has written books, such as Healing and Preventing Autism: A Complete Guide, and explained her beliefs on Oprah. About 1 in 4 U.S. adults reported being familiar with her views in a 2008 USA Today/Gallup poll, and 40 percent of them said her claims made them more inclined to question the safety of vaccines.
That, McCarthy's detractors say, is the problem. "Vaccines don't cause autism," says Alex Pareene at Salon. "Vaccines, instead, prevent disease." And by putting her on The View, he says, ABC is giving her a forum that will help her spread lies that are putting the lives of children at risk.
Vaccines have wiped out a score of formerly deadly childhood diseases. Vaccine skepticism has helped to bring some of those diseases back from near extinction. Children have actually died as a result... It's incredibly irresponsible for a broadcast television network to think Jenny McCarthy should be on television — in a position where her job is to share her opinions — every day. It should seriously be a major scandal. [Salon]
Melissa Healy notes at the Los Angeles Times that McCarthy hasn't just trumpeted discredited claims as fact — she has also promised a cure. She tells parents that they can help autistic children recover by detoxifying their bodies of heavy metals and yeast, and putting them on a gluten-free, dairy-free diet.
This is quackery begotten of fraudulence, exacerbated by mistrust of science, and panic over a disorder that upends parents' lives and their hopes for their children. Add celebrity to that already combustible mix, and you get a fiasco that has already opened the door to the resurgence of preventable childhood diseases such as measles and pertussis. [Los Angeles Times]
The exposure and authority that come with a high-profile talk-show job are expected to provide a boost for McCarthy's controversial cause. Phil Plait at Slate notes that The View, which McCarthy joins in September, has three million viewers, and its daytime slot suggests that many of its fans are "parents of young kids — precisely the demographic most prone to anti-vaccine views." Even if she doesn't say a word about "her nonsensical health ideas on the show," he says, the fact that she's there, on the air, will give her "tacit credibility."
Despite McCarthy's well-meaning intentions and sincerity, her claims are still very, very wrong. So let me be clear: Don't heed the advice of anti-vaxxers. Instead, go to your board-certified doctor and ask about vaccines. And if the doctor recommends you go ahead and get the shots, do it. The life you save may be your own child's, as well of those of children all around you. [Slate]