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Tracing America's Covid vaccine conspiracies to autism fearmongering

Anti-vaxxers are now melding with anti-democratic extremists. But this movement's roots can be traced to men like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and their autism falsehoods.
Photo illustration: A vaccine on a red strip between Robert Kennedy Jr. and Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Like a tumor, the anti-vaccine movement has metastasized in other parts of the American body politic.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new numbers suggesting that 1 in 44 children in the United States are autistic. This is cause for celebration. As CDC researcher Kelly Shaw noted, the “the earlier kids get identified, the earlier they can access services that they might need to improve their developmental outcome.” Similarly, higher prevalence rates reported among Black and Hispanic children is also good news given America’s poor track record diagnosing autistic children of color. Better diagnoses mean more children will receive the services they need. But more than that, it’s time for a cultural reckoning. Autism affects people from all walks of life — and it’s time we embrace them all equally.

Oz’s ascent (and that he could be a U.S. senator come 2023) is just one example of how the world we live in has been shaped by years of autism fearmongering.

Unfortunately, last week also featured Dr. Mehmet Oz, the erstwhile esteemed cardiothoracic surgeon-turned-snake oil salesman, announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate as a Republican in Pennsylvania. Oz has spent a career selling ludicrous weight-loss supplements, but he’s also spent a significant amount of time providing a platform for people who misunderstand and fear autism.

Oz’s ascent (and that he could be a U.S. senator come 2023) is just one example of how the world we live in has been shaped by years of autism fearmongering. That culture of fear which by extension includes vaccines has profoundly dangerous ripple effects. Indeed, many of the people who now question everything from the efficacy of Covid-19 to the integrity of U.S. elections cut their teeth promoting conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods about autism.

As late as 2014, Oz had Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a notorious anti-vaxxer, on his show to talk about removing Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative, from flu shots. Apparently unimportant is the fact that the CDC says Thimerosal does not increase the risk of Autism Spectrum Disorder. This was not the first time Oz had waded into the murky autism and vaccine misinformation pool. He also gave a platform to Jenny McCarthy, America’s ur-anti-vaccine mom (who to this day denies she’s anti-vaccine), who talked about asking God to help “heal” her son (which as a Christian makes me want to yell, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”) Incidentally, when I searched the website for Oz’s show, a series of segments he did on autism causes are now unavailable.

Even when Oz got it right, like in 2019 when he featured a mom who exposed parents poisoning their autistic children with bleach, he was often also wrong. “There is no cure right now for autism,” he noted. “I wish there was and I understand the desire of parents who want to help their kids.” This despite that many autistic people do not want to be “cured” but rather, as I chronicled extensively in my book “We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation,” want their autism to be seen and accepted as an inextricable part of their identity.

Perhaps one of the most egregious practitioners of this fearmongering is Kennedy. The former environmental activist’s infamous, 4,700-word opus linking vaccines and autism appeared in Rolling Stone magazine and on in 2005, but was eventually retracted because of its many half-truths and falsehoods. Sadly, the damage was done.

These days, Kennedy is hawking a book supposedly exposing the “Real Anthony Fauci,” and collaborating with the conspiratorial John Birch Society, which his father called “ridiculous” when he was U.S. attorney general. The book is now a New York Times bestseller and Eric Clapton, the former guitar god turned anti-vaxxer himself, cried his white boy blues to Kennedy in November. For years, Kennedy has irreparably tarnished his family name with stunts like implying baseball legend Henry Aaron’s death might be linked to the Covid vaccine.

Meanwhile, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the conspiracy-mongering and Islamophobic Republican from Georgia, has tweeted about the “common ground” she finds with the Nation of Islam, specifically noting how the organization opposes the Covid-19 vaccine. Initially surprising, this odd connection makes a lot of sense. Greene’s style of xenophobic and conspiratorial politics is an outgrowth of the tea party movement, which developed a symbiotic relationship with the anti-vaccine movement in the 2010s. Similarly, the Nation of Islam’s opposition to the Covid-19 vaccine is an outgrowth of its anti-vaccine alliance with Kennedy. Conversely, it should be said that Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., the target of some of Greene’s worst vitriol, has long worked to improve the Somali community’s trust in vaccinations.

As FiveThirtyEight noted this year, conservatives have long been resistant to mandates for vaccinations. What has changed slightly, notes science journalist Tara Haelle, is their language. After focusing largely on arguments about “toxins,” the anti-vaccine movement is now more focused on arguments about “choice,” a broader rallying cry for the pro-freedom red state crowd. Today, conservatives constantly invoke the language of “choice.” Indeed, conservative Republicans brought the country to the brink of a government shutdown just a few days ago over vaccine mandates.

Perhaps most frightening is the way the anti-vaxx movement has melded with true anti-democratic extremists. About a block away from the Capitol on Jan. 6, anti-vaccine activists held a “MAGA Freedom Rally” that blended anti-vaccine claptrap with lies about the integrity of the 2020 presidential election. Del Bigtree, who produced a documentary lionizing disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield and his now-retracted study linking the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism, was a featured speaker. During the rally, Bigtree compared Fauci to voting machines, claiming Americans could trust neither. It’s possible that the more cynical anti-vaxxers see election fraud as their next pivot (and meal ticket).

But unlike Covid-19, autism isn’t scary. We shouldn’t fear it, but rather learn to better support those individuals living with it. Sadly, as autism diagnoses increased in the 1990s and the 2000s, solidarity did not keep pace. Instead, anti-vaxxers offered simplistic conspiratorial rationalizations that cast wide and damaging cultural shadows.

Like a tumor, the anti-vaccine movement has metastasized in other parts of the American body politic. Many of the strategies that could help dismantle ableism would also help mitigate the effects of the pandemic: namely community-based care. But these efforts are undermined by anti-vaxxers once again wreaking havoc. Only now, it’s not just autistic people in their crosshairs. It’s all of us.