Actor Robert De Niro's decision to yank an anti-vaccine documentary from the Tribeca Film Festival has reignited a conversation around ethics and censorship, but the debate over the film's subject matter has been raging for years in Hollywood.
The iconic actor bowed to pressure from other filmmakers who argued that "Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe" did not deserve an audience because the scientific claims it makes have been widely discredited. The director of the film, Andrew Wakefield, who is a British former surgeon and medical researcher, has been criticized for alleging that the measles, mumps and rubellavaccine can cause autism. His widely shared 1998 report on the links between vaccines and autism has been retracted and Wakefield has been barred from practicing medicine in the U.K. because he allegedly falsified his research. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control has conducted or funded nine different studies that found no correlation between vaccines and autism.
Despite the controversy around Wakefield, he does have several high profile celebrity backers. In fact, several Hollywood stars have publicly taken stands against vaccinations, up to and including current GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump.
"People love to be outliers — discoverers of hidden knowledge, and celebrities are no exception. They just happen to hope to become outliers more publicly," Karen Ernst, the executive director of Voices for Vaccines, a nonprofit organization comprised of pro-vaccine parents, told MSNBC on Monday. "In this case Andrew Wakefield, who is a charming and has a history of defrauding the public, convinced someone to show a film with absolutely no basis in reality. The film was likely a way for Wakefield, who can no longer practice medicine, to remain relevant. Fortunately for the film festival and for public health, De Niro took the time to look at the film and discovered that the emperor had no clothes."
De Niro mentioned that his initial decision to screen was intended to “provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family.” De Niro and his wife Grace Hightower have an autistic child, and though the 72-year-old Oscar winner has said that he doesn't necessarily subscribe to anti-vaccination positions himself, he had previously argued that it is "critical that all the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined."
However, Ernst believes that when it comes to vaccines and autism, the case is closed. "The question about vaccines and autism has been answered time and again, and now the latest research about autism shows that it begins even before birth," she said. "Continuing to promote Wakefield's fraudulent ideas about vaccines and autism only threatens public health and brings harm to autistic people by making who they are something to fear."
Still, this hasn't stopped numerous celebrities from hopping onto the anti-vaccination bandwagon. Arguably the most famous face attached to the movement is former model and actress Jenny McCarthy, who has alleged in the past that her son's autism was caused by mercury in vaccine shots. McCarthy has regularly espoused her views on television and in books, leading The Daily Beast in 2014 to dub her "the nation’s most prominent purveyor of anti-vaxxer ideology."
“I am not anti-vaccine,” McCarthy told the publication that year. “I’m in this gray zone of, I think everyone should be aware and educate yourself and ask questions. And if your kid is having a problem, ask your doctor for an alternative way of doing the shots."
Over the last two years, several other stars have taken up McCarthy's cause, including her former boyfriend, actor Jim Carrey, as well as actresses Jenna Elfman and Alicia Silverstone, reality TV veteran Kristin Cavallari, singer Toni Braxton, Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, environmental activist Robert Kennedy, Jr. and comedians Bill Maher and Rob Schneider — just to name a few.
Some of these famous faces actively campaigned against SB 277, a bill signed into law last year by Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown, which requires that all children in the state be vaccinated with exceptions for when a licensed physician recommends against it.
“The science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children against a number of infectious and dangerous diseases,” Brown wrote in his signing statement last summer. “While it’s true that no medical intervention is without risk, the evidence shows that immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community.”
As for Trump, whose anti-vaccination stance won him the support of eccentric reality performer Tila Tequila, he has tweeted in the past: "If I were President I would push for proper vaccinations but would not allow one time massive shots that a small child cannot take - AUTISM."
Last fall, Trump's position came up again during a GOP presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. “Autism has become an epidemic. Twenty-five years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close. It has gotten totally out of control,” Trump said.
After being castigated by his two opponents with medical degrees — Dr. Ben Carson and Sen. Rand Paul — Trump conceded that he was "in favor of vaccines."
"Do them over a longer period of time, same amount," he said. Then added, "But just in — in little sections. I think — and I think you’re going to have — I think you’re going to see a big impact on autism."
To which Carson, who endorsed Trump earlier this month, jokingly replied: "He's an OK doctor."
As for Wakefield, he has pressed forward with his film despite De Niro's snub, claimed his project was "denied due process" by the festival in a statement on the film's website.
"Tribeca’s action will not succeed in denying the world access to the truth behind the film 'Vaxxed,'" he wrote. "We are grateful to the many thousands of people who have already mobilized including doctors, scientists, educators and the autistic community. We will be pressing forward and sharing our plans in the very near future.”
Additional reporting by Tony Dokoupil.