Abortion is one of the most controversial issues of our time. Like most controversies, there exist two main sides that seem diametrically opposed to each other. However, I believe that in this conflict there is a way for both sides to work together towards a common goal that will benefit both human life and society for the long term. Before continuing it is important to clarify where each side stands. Those on the “pro-life” side assert that abortion is morally wrong. This is usually, but not always, based on the assertion that God (usually the Christian god) has a purpose for all human beings and that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception. If one holds these assertions as truth it isn’t difficult to feel some sympathy to for their position. For those who stand on the side of being “pro-choice”, abortion is seen as primarily a medical procedure. Further, most “pro-choicers” would say that it should be a last resort only after all other options and factors such as personal socioeconomic situation and health have been carefully considered. This is because abortion, by its very nature, is intrusive, can lead to irreparable damage to the reproductive abilities of the woman and can have severe emotional side-effects (similar to those of women who have miscarried, ie. natural abortion). Therefore, they see abortion as a choice but one that should be used sparingly.
One side feels it is absolutely wrong while the other sees it as treatment and thus not completely wrong. Most of the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” individuals I have known through the years would generally agree with this summary of their general views on the subject. However, there are extremists on both sides. Carl Sagan[i] said of them, “doubtful arguments are trotted out as certitudes”. Thus, it would appear that there is little possibility of reconciliation between the sides. One side feels it is absolutely wrong while the other sees it as treatment and thus not completely wrong. How then could they be convinced to work together? To what common goal could they possibly work towards? To begin, I point out that both sides can agree that abortion is at minimum, undesirable. With this minor agreement as a foundation let us consider other procedures past and present that have either been eradicated from medical practice or are presently being phased out due to current medical therapies/treatments/advances.
For simplicity, let us consider another undesirable medical practice that is less controversial, at least ethically; amputation. Surgical amputations “date back at least to the time of Hippocrates (c.460-375 B.C.), amputating limbs to save lives did not become widespread until the sixteenth century.”(Source) Obviously, amputations “were performed mainly to remove tissue that was already dead. The reason for this limitation is that early surgical techniques could not control the blood loss.” (Source) Advances were made in surgical practices to prevent this hemorrhaging such as tying off the arteries. (Source) Amputation is an extreme medical practice which, over time given medical advances, decreases in use relative to the population. In a 1998 article in the journal “Diabetes Care”, Andrew D. Morris, MD et.al. found that “rates in the U.S. Amputation rates appear to have decreased significantly since 1980–1982.”(Source) The reason given for the decrease was education about diabetes and advances in care. Another study found that “[t]he frequency of major amputations in the country in 1986-87 of 40.9 per 100,000 per year declined by 25% to 30.9 per 100,000 per year in 1989-90.”(Source), stating further that “vascular surgery reduces the number of major lower limb amputations.”(Source) Given these and many other examples, it is clear that medical advances both in practice and education are responsible for a great deal of the reduction in the use of such an invasive, life-altering, and extreme medical procedure.
How does this relate to abortion? Not only is abortion undesirable, it is also invasive, life-altering and extreme. Thus, just as with the case of amputation; where instead of targeting the practice itself the causes were targeted, we should strive to eliminate the causes of abortions as much as possible. Abortion is obviously necessary in certain cases such as fallopian-tube babies, that if left to go to term, would kill the mother. Furthermore, just as education about diabetes helped in the reduction of amputations, so too can better sex education and the elimination of “abstinence-only” education reduce the need for abortions among ignorant or accident-prone young people. The following quote from Carl Sagani drives this point home: “Shouldn’t opponents of abortion be handing out contraceptives and teaching school children how to use them? That would be an effective way to reduce the number of abortions.” Though it is true that you can’t prevent or solve all amputations, so too will we not be able to end all abortions. That is where technology and research is vital. However, we can, if we work together instead of fighting about who believes what, we can end most abortions by using sound judgment and trusted preventative practices to treat the causes rather than the treatment.
At this point I anticipate some resistance from those extreme pro-lifers who view contraception as evil and won’t have anything to do with it citing that it is God’s will that we end abortion. This argument seems fraught with logical problems. 1) If God chooses when we are born and when we die, then why couldn’t abortion be a tool of God? 2) If it’s God’s will that abortions end then shouldn’t he be offering a solution to us without us asking? 3) If it’s God’s will that we end abortion, could it be that his will includes research as described above and through His divine grace provide us an answer via data collected in such studies? In any case, it would seem to be in the best interest of even the most hardcore pro-lifer to work together with pro-choicers and to utilize sound and moral science to reduce the number of abortions. Instead of killing abortion doctors why not try putting them out of business in a more constructive and less violent way, and donate to an organization or research project that is attacking one of the many causes of abortions. That will accomplish far more than squabbling amongst each other about who’s right and who’s wrong. The truth is, neither group is right by themselves, they are only right together.
In summary, my hope is that I’ve made it clear to pro-choicers that pro-lifers are not all a bunch of scripture-spouting nut-bars that are out to turn the country into a theocracy. Also, pro-lifers are truly concerned about human life, just as much as any pro-choicer. The problem lies in the question of when “human” life begins. This question is not as clear-cut as both sides would like it to be, therefore the concerns of the pro-lifers about ending human life is a painful decision that is not completely baseless from a scientific point of view. Also, I’ve hope I’ve made it clear to pro-lifers that not all pro-choicers are malicious baby killers that care only for the reproductive rights of women and care nothing of potential human beings. There isn’t a single person that is truly for abortion, but one way to rid ourselves of it as much as possible is embracing science and giving medical research a chance to find the cure for the causes of abortion in an effort to greatly reduce the practice.
 ANDREW D. MORRIS, MD; RITCHIE MCALPINE, BSC; DOUGLAS STEINKE, BSC; DOUGLAS I.R. BOYLE, BSC; ABDUL-RAHIM EBRAHIM; NAVEEN VASUDEV; COLIN P.U. STEWART, MD; ROLAND T. JUNG, MD; GRAHAM P. LEESE, MD; THOMAS M. MACDONALD, MD ; RAY W. NEWTON, FRCP.
[i] In an article that first appeared in Parade magazine on April 22, 1990 entitled “The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers”, quoted here from his book Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death the Brink of the Millennium (1997). The article appears as Chapter 15 entitled “Abortion: Is it Possible to be both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice?”
Metro State Atheists
Schedule of Events (Spring Semester 2009)
2/12- Darwin Day party- Time and Local TBA
2/16- Why Intelligent Design is not science. Tivoli Tavern Space. 10am-4pm
3/11- Think you know the 10 commandments? Think Again. Tivoli Tavern Space. 10am-4pm
4/7- R-Harmony: We match you with the religion of your dreams! North Classroom Atrium A2. 10am -4pm
4/22-4/23- Spring Fling Our event will consist of demonstrations of the failure of some pseudo-medicine, including the famous Kinoki Footpads. . Tivoli Commons 10am-3pm
5/9- Skepticamp. This event is being brought to us by the Denver Skeptics. It is a gathering of skeptics in which they will present in a lecture type format, certain findings that they have discovered on phenomena spanning a whole host of different fields. President, Joel Guttormson, and Vice President, Chalmer Wren, will be presenting on the language of pseudoscience. Tivoli room 320 9am-8pm
This list is subject to changes and additions as it is TENTATIVE.
I was strolling through a lounge one day…
When I saw this lying on a table:
I became suspicious at once. I’ve never quite understood how the word “natural” makes something automatically better than another thing.
Natural steaks, natural food, natural medicine.
Hell, my mum buys Arrowhead water instead of the generic brand because she thinks it has more “natural water”.
I once saw a bottle of sparkling mineral water that said that it was made with “natural CO2″. Apparently being natural carbon dioxide doesn’t change the chemical formula of carbon dioxide anyway if it’s still “natural CO2″ so what’s so great about it?
Maybe if I changed my blog’s sub-title to “All-Natural” I’d get more traffic.
Now, obviously there are some artificial things that are bad for you (though a lot of them are fine when taken in moderation). There are also some natural things that are bad for you.
Arsenic occurs naturally.
Uranium occurs naturally.
Mercury occurs naturally.
And that’s just a few things I pulled off the Periodic Table.
But it turns out that Kevin Trudeau is even more of a flat-out liar than my original suspicions let on when I found this YouTube video by Googling his name:
As wonderful a job as John Stossel (we need more journalists who have half as much skepticism as him) did exposing Trudeau, I still have to bang my head into a wall after reading this YouTube comment:
Trudeau is NOT a crook. I have tried several things in his book and they worked for me. Like Magnesium tablets for stress relief. They work better for me than ANY antidepressant or antianxiety that doctors have given me. FDA is out to KILL!
Thank you for your anecdotal scientific assertion that magnesium tablets work for stress relief (I personally have found that a hot bath and some chocolate works well enough, and yours can’t possibly be a placebo effect!) and that the FDA wants to kill us all.
Advice for the FDA: it would go a lot quicker if you let us use China’s tainted milk products.
Found this article from childrenshealthcare.org.
“At the age of five, Nancy Brewster of El Paso, Texas, developed lumps on her neck and threw up repeatedly. She was too sick to go to school after first grade. A Christian Science practitioner prayed for Nancy. She urged the girl and her mother to deny the symptoms of the illness as an illusion. Nancy was constantly told that she was God’s perfect child and nothing could be wrong with her.
Nancy was made to exercise in 100 degree–plus heat and forced to eat even though she was vomiting. Both her mother and the practitioner believed that Nancy was just being stubborn. Her mother sometimes even beat Nancy and blamed her for not getting healed. Nancy got no pain relief, even an aspirin. She was not held or comforted because that would be giving reality to the disease.
Nancy died September 29, 1963, at age 7. Her death certificate lists “probable malignant lymphoma” as the cause.
She had no obituary or funeral service. Her mother told her siblings to think that Nancy had just gone on a trip to Africa. In her family home, Nancy was never spoken of again. Like illness, death was considered unreal in Christian Science theology.
Her mother later became a Christian Science practitioner and published a testimony in the January, 1984, Christian Science Journal with a disturbing omission. “Rearing four children with total reliance on God for healing was a joy. I cannot remember an activity missed because of illness,” she wrote.
As Caroline Fraser writes, however, “In fact, Mrs. Brewster had five children. The unmentioned fifth child who has been revised out of this testimony—indeed, out of life itself—was Nancy Brewster.” (Fraser, God’s Perfect Child, 428)
Nancy’s big sister published an obituary and held a memorial service for Nancy on the 40th anniversary of her death, and publishes an In Memoriam every year to honor and remember Nancy.”
Thanks to the A-Team for this blog
I don’t usually ask, but if you agree with this blog, Please give kudos and comment. I want as many people to see this blog as possible.
The following paragraph was written by Myspace user “TPO” as an introduction to his blog that reposted the same article:
“I am posting this to counter the rash of QUACKERY, CONSPIRACY THEORIES, and DOWNRIGHT DECEIT about vaccinations the public has been spoon fed by the mainstream media lately. I’ve also seen this misinformation posted in forums, bulletin boards and other venues throughout the web and nowhere is it more prominent than here in the MySpace community. Not only is it irresponsible to spread this nonsense, it is downright dangerous to the health and wellbeing of people all around the world. If you agree, then please post this article in a blog of your own or post a bulletin with a link to it.
Peace, love and all that other good stuff…TPO”
VACCINES & AUTISM: Myths and Misconceptions
The Anti-Vaccination Movement
Despite the growing scientific consensus that vaccines are safe and that neither vaccines nor mercury cause autism, a stubborn vocal minority claims otherwise, threatening the effectiveness of this public health program.
Steven Novella, MD, is an assistant professor of neurology at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the host of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast (www.theskepticsguide.org), author of the NeuroLogica blog (www.theness.com/ NeuroLogicaBlog), and president of the New England Skeptical Society www.theness.com).
Michelle Cedillo has autism, which her parents believe is the result of her childhood vaccines. In June 2007 they had the opportunity, along with eight other families, to make their case to the Autism Omnibus—a U.S. Court of Federal Claims that was presided over by three “special masters” appointed for the purpose. These nine cases are the first test cases that will likely determine the fate of 4,800 other claims made over the past eight years for compensation for injuries allegedly due to childhood vaccines.
Vaccines are one of the most successful programs in modern health care, reducing, and in some cases even eliminating, serious infectious diseases. Public support for the vaccination program remains strong, especially in the United States where vaccination rates are currently at an all-time high of >95 percent (CDC 2004). Yet, despite a long history of safety and effectiveness, vaccines have always had their critics: some parents and a tiny fringe of doctors question whether vaccinating children is worth what they perceive as the risks. In recent years, the anti-vaccination movement, largely based on poor science and fear-mongering, has become more vocal and even hostile (Hughes 2007).
Of course, vaccines are not without risk (no medical intervention is), although the benefits far outweigh those risks. Because vaccines are somewhat compulsory in the United States—although opting out is increasingly easy—a National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was established to streamline the process for compensation for those who are injured due to vaccines (USDOJ 2007). It is this program to which the Cedillo and 4,800 other families are applying for compensation.
In the last decade, the anti-vaccine movement, which includes those who blame the MMR (mumps-measles-rubella) vaccine for autism, has largely merged with those who warn that mercury toxicity is the cause of many of the ills that plague mankind. The two groups have come together over the issue of thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative in some vaccines. They believe that it was the use of thimerosal in childhood vaccines that led to the apparent autism epidemic beginning in the 1990s.
Autism is a complex neurological disorder that typically manifests in the first few years of life and primarily involves a deficiency of typical social skills and behavior. In the 1990’s, the number of autism diagnoses significantly increased, from between one and three to about fifteen cases per ten thousand, although the true incidence is probably between thirty and sixty per ten thousand (Rutter 2005). During this same period, the number of vaccines given in the routine childhood schedule also increased. This led some to assume, or at least speculate, causation from correlation—perhaps the vaccines or something in them created this “epidemic” of autism.
We can now say, from multiple independent lines of evidence, that vaccines do not cause autism. For one thing, the autism “epidemic” probably does not represent a true increase in the disorder, but rather an artifact of expanding the diagnosis (now referred to as autism spectrum disorder, ASD) and increased surveillance (Taylor 2006).
In 1998, researcher Andrew Wakefield and some of his colleagues published a study in the prestigious English medical journal Lancet that claimed to show a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism (Wakefield 1998). Wakefield’s theory was that the MMR vaccine, which contains a live virus, can cause in susceptible children a chronic measles infection. This in turn leads to gastrointestinal disturbances, including what he calls a “leaky gut” syndrome, which then allows for certain toxins and chemicals, like those from bread and dairy that are normally broken down by the gut, to enter the bloodstream where they can access and damage the developing brain.
Although the study was small and the evidence was considered preliminary, this article sparked a firestorm. As a result of the study and the media coverage that followed (and continues to this day), MMR compliance in Great Britain plummeted, resulting in a surge of preventable disease (Friederichs 2006).
Subsequent to the seminal article in the Lancet, many follow-up studies were performed testing the autism-MMR vaccine correlation. As the follow-up studies began to be published, however, it became increasingly clear that there was no link between MMR and autism. For example, a study in the British Medical Journal found that autism rates continued to climb in areas where MMR vaccination rates were not increasing (Taylor 1999). Another study found no association with MMR and autism or GI (gastrointestinal) disorders (Taylor 2002). Other studies showed no difference in the diagnosis rate of autism either before or after the MMR vaccine was administered (Honda 2005), or between vaccinated and unvaccinated children (Madsen 2002). Most recently, a study found that there was no decrease in autism rates following removal of the MMR vaccine in Japan (Honda 2005).
In 2001, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) reviewed all of the MMR-autism data available to date and concluded that there was no association and essentially closed the case (IOM 2001)—a conclusion confirmed by still later studies, such as the Honda study in Japan cited above.
If Wakefield had simply been wrong in his preliminary findings, he would be innocent of any wrongdoing—scientists are not faulted if their early findings are not later vindicated. However, in May 2004, ten of Wakefield’s co-authors on his original paper withdrew their support for its conclusions. The editors of Lancet also announced that they withdrew their endorsement of the paper and cited as part of the reason an undisclosed potential conflict of interest for Wakefield, namely that at the time of its publication he was conducting research for a group of parents of autistic children seeking to sue for damages from MMR vaccine producers (Lancet 2004).
It gets worse. Investigative reporter Brian Deer has uncovered greater depths to Wakefield’s apparent malfeasance. Wakefield had applied for patents for an MMR vaccine substitute and treatments for his alleged MMR vaccine-induced gut disorder (Deer 2007). So, not only was he allegedly paid by lawyers to cast doubt on the MMR vaccine, but he stood to personally gain from the outcome of his research.
Andrew Wakefield. (Credit: Tom Miller) [Photo via Newscom]
Further, during the Cedillo case testimony, Stephen Bustin, a world expert in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), testified that the lab Wakefield used to obtain the results for his original paper was contaminated with measles virus RNA. It was therefore likely, Bustin implied, that the PCR used by Wakefield was detecting this contamination and not evidence for measles infection in the guts of children with autism who had been vaccinated, as Wakefield claimed. And finally, Nicholas Chadwick testified that the measles RNA Wakefield found matched the laboratory contamination and did not match either any naturally occurring strain or the strain used in the MMR vaccine—a fact of which he had informed Wakefield (USCFC 2007).
All of this, plus other allegations still coming out, has caused Britain’s General Medical Council to call Wakefield before its “Fitness to Practice” panel for review of his alleged professional misconduct (GMC 2007).
Believers in the MMR-autism hypothesis dismiss the findings of the larger and more powerful epidemiological studies that contradict a link. Instead, they have turned Andrew Wakefield into a martyr, dismissing the evidence of his wrongdoing as a conspiracy against him designed to hide the true cause of autism from the public. Wakefield is unrepentant and maintains his innocence (Gorski 2007).
With the MMR-autism hypothesis scientifically dead, attention soon shifted to thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative found in some childhood vaccines (although not the MMR vaccine). There is little doubt, and no controversy, that mercury, the major component of thimerosal, is a powerful neurotoxin, or poison to the brain. However, toxicity is always a matter of dose. Everything becomes toxic in a high enough dose; even too much water or vitamin C can kill you. So the real question is whether the amount of mercury given to children in vaccines containing thimerosal was enough to cause neurological damage.
Author of the book Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic David Kirby (center) speaks as president Harvey Fineberg (left) of the Institute of Medicine listens during an interview by moderator Tim Russert (right) on NBC‘s Meet the Press August 7, 2005, at the NBC studios in Washington, D.C. Fineberg and Kirby talked about the rising number of autism diagnoses among children and the controversial charges of a government conspiracy to allow mercury exposures from childhood vaccines to more than double between 1988 and 1992. The Institute of Medicine reviewed all MMR-autism data and concluded that there was no association. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press) [Photo via Newscom]
Proponents of the mercury hypothesis argue that the ethylmercury found in thimerosal was given in doses exceeding Environmental Protection Agency limits. This load of mercury should be considered with prenatal vaccine loads possibly given to mothers, and to other environmental sources of mercury, such as seafood. Furthermore, underweight or premature infants received a higher dose by weight than larger children. Some children, they argue, may have a specific inability to metabolize mercury, and perhaps these are the children who become autistic.
Fear over thimerosal and autism was given a huge boost by journalist David Kirby with his book Evidence of Harm (Kirby 2005). Kirby tells the clichéd tale of courageous families searching for help for their sick children and facing a blind medical establishment and a federal government rife with corruption from corporate dollars. Kirby echoes the core claim that as the childhood vaccine schedule increased in the 1990s, leading to an increased cumulative dose of thimerosal, autism diagnoses skyrocketed.
In the end, Evidence of Harm is an example of terrible reporting that grossly misrepresents the science and the relevant institutions. As bad as Kirby’s position was in 2005, in the last two years the evidence has been piling up that thimerosal does not cause autism. Rather than adjusting his claims to the evidence, Kirby has held fast to his claims, which has made him a hero alongside Wakefield of the mercury-autism-connection crowd as he has squandered his credibility.
There have now been a number of epidemiological and ecological studies that have all shown no correlation between thimerosal and autism (Parker 2004 and Doja 2006). I have already mentioned that the current consensus holds that there is no real autism epidemic, just an artifact of how the diagnosis is made. If there’s no epidemic, there’s no reason to look for a correlation between thimerosal and autism. This has been backed up by The Institute of Medicine, which has also reviewed all the available evidence (both epidemiological and toxicological) and concluded that the evidence does not support the conclusion that thimerosal causes autism (IOM 2004).
Especially damning for the thimerosal hypothesis are the recent studies that clearly demonstrate that early detection of autism is possible long before the diagnosis is officially made. Part of the belief that vaccines may cause autism is driven by the anecdotal observation by many parents that their children were normal until after they were vaccinated—autism is typically diagnosed around age two or three. However, more careful observations indicate that signs of autism are present much earlier, even before twelve months of age, before exposure to thimerosal (Mitchell 2006). In fact, autism expert Eric Fombonne testified in the Autism Omnibus hearings that Michelle Cedillo displayed early signs of autism clearly visibly on family video taken prior to her receiving the MMR vaccine (USCFC 2007).
Meanwhile, evidence is accumulating that autism is largely a genetic disorder (Szatmari 2007). This by itself does not rule out an environmental factor, but it is telling that genetic research in autism has proven so fruitful.
Mercury alarmists, in the face of this negative evidence, have been looking for rationalizations. Some have argued that the thimerosal in prenatal vaccines may be to blame, but recent evidence has shown a negative correlation there as well (Miles 2007).
What we have are the makings of a solid scientific consensus. Multiple independent lines of evidence all point in the same direction: vaccines in general, and thimerosal in particular, do not cause autism, which rather likely has its roots in genetics. Furthermore, true autism rates are probably static and not rising.
A demonstrator carries a sign protesting the use of mercury in vaccines past the U.S. Capitol in Washington July 20, 2005. Some three hundred people marched demanding that mercury not be used in vaccines anymore amid concern that it is the cause of autism and other neurological diseases in children. However, numerous studies show no correlation between Thimerosol and autism. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images) [Photo via Newscom]
The only researchers who are publishing data that contradicts this consensus are the father-and-son team of Mark and David Geier. They have looked at the same data and concluded that thimerosal does correlate with autism. However, the hammer of peer-review has come down on their methods and declared them fatally flawed, thus rendering their conclusions invalid or uninterpretable (Parker 2004). Also, like Wakefield, their reputations are far from clean. They have made something of a career out of testifying for lawyers and families claiming that vaccines caused their child’s autism, even though the Geiers’ testimony is often excluded on the basis that they lack the proper expertise (Goldacre 2007). The Geiers were not even called as experts in the Autism Omnibus hearings.
The Geiers are now undertaking an ethically suspect study in which they are administering chelation therapy to children with autism in conjunction with powerful hormonal therapy allegedly designed to reduce testosterone levels. Chelation therapy removes mercury, and so it is dependent upon the mercury hypothesis, which is all but disproved. Moreover, there is no clinical evidence for the efficacy of chelation therapy. The treatment is far from benign and is even associated with occasional deaths (Brown 2006).
With the scientific evidence so solidly against the mercury hypothesis of autism, proponents maintain their belief largely through the generous application of conspiracy thinking. The conspiracy claim has been made the loudest by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in two conspiracy-mongering articles: Deadly Immunity published on Salon.com in 2005 (Kennedy 2005), and more recently Attack on Mothers (Kennedy 2007). In these articles, RFK Jr. completely misrepresents and selectively quotes the scientific evidence, dismisses inconvenient evidence as fraudulent, accuses the government, doctors, and the pharmaceutical industry of conspiring to neurologically damage America’s children, and accuses scientists who are skeptical of the mercury claims of attacking the mothers of children with autism.
Despite the lack of evidence for any safety concern, the FDA decided to remove all thimerosal from childhood vaccines, and by 2002 no new childhood vaccines with thimerosal were being sold in the U.S. This was not an admission of prior error, as some mercury proponents claimed; instead, the FDA was playing it safe by minimizing human exposure to mercury wherever possible. The move was also likely calculated to maintain public confidence in vaccines.
This created the opportunity to have the ultimate test of the thimerosal autism hypothesis. If rising thimerosal doses in the 1990s led to increasing rates of autism diagnosis, then the removal of thimerosal should be followed within a few years by a similar drop in new autism diagnoses. If, on the other hand, thimerosal did not cause autism, then the incidence of new diagnoses should continue to increase and eventually level off at or near the true rate of incidence. In 2005, I personally interviewed David Kirby on the topic, and we both agreed that this would be a fair test of our respective positions. Also, in an e-mail to science blogger Citizen Cain, Kirby wrote, “If the total number of 3-5 year olds in the California DDS [Department of Developmental Services] system has not declined by 2007, that would deal a severe blow to the autism-thimerosal hypothesis” (Cain 2005).
Well, five years after the removal of thimerosal, autism diagnosis rates have continued to increase (IDIC 2007). That is the final nail in the coffin in the thimerosal-vaccine-autism hypothesis. The believers, however, are in full rationalization mode. David Kirby and others have charged that although no new vaccines with thimerosal were sold after 2001, there was no recall, so pediatricians may have had a stockpile of thimerosal-laden vaccines—even though a published inspection of 447 pediatric clinics and offices found only 1.9 percent of relevant vaccines still had thimerosal by February 2002, a tiny fraction that was either exchanged, used, or expired soon after (CDCP/ACIP 2002).
Those who argue for the link have put forth increasingly desperate notions. Kirby has argued that mercury from cremations was increasing environmental mercury toxicity and offsetting the decrease in mercury from thimerosal. The Geiers simply reinterpreted the data using bad statistics to create the illusion of a downward trend where none exists (Geier 2006). Robert Kennedy Jr. dodges the issue altogether by asking for more studies, despite the fact that the evidence he asks for already exists. He just doesn’t like the answer. Kennedy and others also point to dubious evidence, such as the myth that the Amish do not vaccinate and do not get autism. Both of these claims are not true, and the data RFK Jr. refers to is nothing more than a very unscientific phone survey (Leitch 2007).
The Autism Omnibus hearings have concluded, and while we await the decision due early next year, I am optimistic that science and reason will win the day. Just as shown in the 2005 Dover trial of intelligent design where the full body of scientific evidence was given a thorough airing in court and subjected to rules of evidence and the critical eyes of experienced judges, science tends to win out over nonsense. By all accounts, the lawyers for those claiming that vaccines caused their children’s autism put on pathetic performances with transparently shoddy science, while the other side marshaled genuine experts and put forth an impressive case.
But the stakes are high, and not just for the 4,800 families. If the petitioners win these test cases despite the evidence, it will open the floodgates for the rest of the 4,800 petitioners. This will likely bankrupt the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program and will also risk our vaccine infrastructure. Pharmaceutical companies will be reluctant to subject themselves to the liability of selling vaccines if even the truth cannot protect them from lawsuits.
Thimerosal still exists as a necessary preservative in multi-shot vaccines outside the United States, especially in poor third-world countries that cannot afford stockpiles of single-shot vaccines. Anti-thimerosal hysteria therefore also threatens the health of children in poor countries.
And of course a victory for the anti-vaccination activists would undermine public confidence in what is arguably the single most effective public health measure devised by modern science. This decrease in confidence will lead, as it has before, to declining compliance and an increase in infectious disease.
The forces of irrationality are arrayed on this issue. There are conspiracy theorists, well-meaning but misguided citizen groups who are becoming increasingly desperate and hostile, irresponsible journalists, and ethically compromised or incompetent scientists. The science itself is complex, making it difficult for the average person to sift through all the misdirection and misinformation. Standing against all this is simple respect for scientific integrity and the dedication to follow the evidence wherever it leads.
Right now the evidence leads to the firm conclusion that vaccines do not cause autism. Yet, if history is any guide, the myth that they do cause autism will likely endure even in the face of increasing contradictory evidence.
Brown, M.J., T. Willis, B. Omalu, and R. Leiker. 2006. Deaths resulting from hypocalcemia after administration of edetate disodium: 2003–2005. Pediatrics. 118(2):e534–36.
Centers for Disease Control. 2004. MMWR Weekly, November 12. 53(44):1041–1044. Available at www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5344a4.htm.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Immunization. 2002. Practice Records of the meeting held on February 20–21, 2002, Atlanta Marriott North Central Hotel. Available at www.kevinleitch.co.uk/grabit/acip-min-feb.pdf.
Citizen Cain. 2005. Slouching Toward Truth—Autism and Mercury, November 30. Available at http://citizencain.blogspot.com/2005/11/slouching-toward-truth-autism-and_30.html.
Deer, B. 2007. Andrew Wakefield & the MMR scare: part 2. Available at http://briandeer.com/wakefield-deer.htm.
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“A CANADIAN TRAGEDY
The quackery-related death of a 17-month-old girl has sent shock waves across Canada. No one aspect of the story is unusual. The scenario is a classic combination of cultural vulnerability, modern urban mythology and quackery.
Dead from malnutrition and pneumonia is Lorie Atikian. Eight months before her death on September 25, 1987, Lorie was a perfectly healthy baby. When she died she was nearly bald, covered with deep red rashes, and so emaciated that the paramedics thought they were being tricked by being given a doll to treat.
Lorie’s parents Sonia, 38, and Khochadour, 54, are emigrants from Lebanon and Syria. In addition to Lorie, the couple has two teenage children. Like many people these days the Atikian’s were concerned about modern food additives, pesticide residues, and drugs. Their cultural background may have made them a bit more vulnerable, but like most people they held positive attitudes toward “natural” food and medicine. Sonia became enamored with Gerhard Hanswille, an “herbologist.”
Gerhard Hanswille, 55, says that he learned herbology in Germany through self-study and books (Germany has a tradition of folk medicine that includes a great deal of Medieval herbalism). In 1972, Hanswille obtained a mail order doctoral degree in naturopathy from “Bernadean University” (BU) located at that time in Las Vegas, Nevada. BU, which was never approved or accredited to offer any courses, was closed down by the Nevada Commission on Postsecondary Education in 1976. It then moved to California where it operated for several years before eventually becoming “authorized” under the State’s liberal rules (Aronson, 1983). California has tried to close BU but has been blocked by its claim to being a religious school of the Church of Universology (Emshwiller, 1987).
Hanswille owns two “House of Herbs” stores, writes and gives seminars at which he expounds his theories, which include making wax and clay effigies sealed with drops of blood and sperm (notions founded in Monism and Vitalism which are the basis of most primitive folk medicine). Hanswille’s book describes how to heal diabetes, epilepsy, TB, tumors and paralysis by “touchless massage.” Hanswille likens the technique to dowsing for water, something that “not everyone can do.” Sonia paid $450 to take Hanswille’s course.
Hanswille’s compelling vision of natural health made a convert of Sonia. When she became pregnant with Lorie in 1985 Hanswille convinced her to remain “pure” for the sake of the child. She testified that Hanswille promised to make Lorie a super baby. “That baby is going to be very different. Its going to develop without chemicals. Its going to be strong and pure…it going to be very special.” Hanswille convinced Sonia that vaccinations would “poison” her child, and that ultrasound examination would damage an unborn baby’s brain. He had Sonia tell her pediatrician that she would not be bringing Lorie in any more because the family was moving to California. Hanswille was described as “. . .like a doctor. . .surrounded by medicine and books. . . sure of what he was saying. He always had an answer.”
Hanswille advocated an organic, vegetarian diet. He sold the Atikians a special juicer for $400 alleging that their own juicer “burned the nutrition” out of fruits. Among the special products the Atikians purchased from Hanswille were a bottle of baby oil that cost $16, a bar of soap costing $7.40, and a 3 kg box of laundry detergent that cost $35.99.
When Lorie became ill she was treated with royal jelly, “cell salts” (homeopathy), and an herbal concoction brewed by Hanswille. He also treated Lorie with an electromagnetic “vitalizing” machine that “stimulates the blood” and has attachments such as an electrified comb that “livens up the hair.” Sonia Atikian testified that they became very concerned about Lorie’s condition but that Hanswille assured them that it was normal for clumps of her baby’s hair to fall out and not to worry if Lorie didn’t gain weight. Hanswille told Sonia that taking Lorie to a hospital would be like “holding a loaded gun to Lorie’s head and pulling the trigger.”
The Legal Charges
The Atikians were charged with failing to provide the necessities of life for their baby daughter (child neglect). Up until now Hanswille has not been charged with anything. He has angrily complained that he feels like “the accused” but denies that he did anything wrong. He says that he “cannot tell people what to do,” that it is up to the parents to make decisions for their children. The judge instructed the jury that it was all right for them to “vent your spleen” over the activities of Hanswille “and his ilk,” but neither he nor herbalism were on trial in the death of little Lorie.
On June 12 the Atikians were found guilty of child neglect. Sentencing is scheduled for July 6.
How Unusual Is This Case?
The sad story of the death of little Lorie Atikian received national coverage in Canada by the Toronto Star (5/10-6/13) and The Globe and Mail. It is the kind of story that elicits harsh blame of the parents for their gullibility. “How could they have been so foolish?” is the usual response. The reality is that most of the public is sympathetic to the underlying assumptions that condemn modern food, commercial agriculture and extol “natural” medicine. The herbal industry is trying to distance itself from Hanswille by saying that the case is “not typical.” However, we believe that what Hanswille told the Atikians is not only widely believed by health food and natural (herbal) medicine ilk; it largely represents the philosophy that is used to justify the existence of “alternative” medicine and herbalism. The faith the Atikians placed in Hanswille seems cult-like, but how different is it than the confidence a patient must put in a surgeon, anesthesiologist, radiologist, or physician who hold lives in their hands?
Murder, By Words Alone?
In 1962, a California chiropractor was convicted of second-degree murder by words alone in the death of 11-year-old cancer patient, Linda Epping. To get a conviction, the prosecutor had to prove that “his fraudulent representations … caused Linda to die when she died” (Miner, 1964). We do not know enough about Ontario law to know if what Hanswille did constituted the unlawful practice of medicine, and if so, the resultant death of Lorie Atikian makes such a felony. We do know that Lorie’s death is even more tragic than Linda Epping’s because Linda had a form of cancer that is usually fatal while Lorie was a healthy baby with a normal future. People who presume to give health advice that can make the difference between life and death must be regulated by the government and held accountable for their misdeeds. Consumer protection law holds that practicing medicine is a privilege, not a right. Like driving a car or flying an airplane, only those who are qualified are granted such privilege by the state. It is clear that the state has a compelling responsibility to protect vulnerable people–and their children–from the glib purveyors of pseudomedicine. It matters not that such practitioners are sincere in their beliefs. Experience teaches that, when it comes to quackery, zealotry can be more dangerous than fraud.
* Miner J. “The Phillips case–A new dimension in murder,” J Forensic Sci, 9:(1):1-10, 1964.
* Aronson V. “Bernadean University: a nutrition diploma mill,” ACSH News & Views, March-April, 1983.
* Emshwiller JR. “Phony parchment,” Wall Street J, April 2, 1987.”