Don't Make Me Defend Jenny McCarthy

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
July 11 2012 11:11 AM

Don't Make Me Defend Jenny McCarthy

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Turns out, there is a wrong way to attack Jenny McCarthy

Photograph by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NBCUniversal.

Anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy is back on the cover of Playboy after a nearly 20-year hiatus. McCarthy’s return to nude modeling has incited a barrage of cheap shots from her critics. This unsigned Op-Ed, “Playmate Kills Kids,” is a perfect example:

Women: Can you believe the audacity of this floozy? She becomes famous for taking off her clothes and then she is suddenly Dr. Jenny Know-It-All. Did she watch a few episodes of "House" and think she was ready to cure autism? Did all that silicone go to her head? Still, it's easy to feel sorry for a mother of a special-needs child (even though he turned out not to be a special-needs child, after all), but her "cure" for autism not only doesn't prevent autism, it has caused thousands of kids to get measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough and several other horrible diseases.

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Don’t make me defend Jenny McCarthy! The problem, critics, has nothing to do with McCarthy posing nude, but that she has no medical or scientific credentials. Besides, she is arguably much more famous as an alternative health crusader than she ever was as a model or actress. Her good looks and B-list celebrity status helped her career as an activist, but they don’t fully explain her continued influence.

McCarthy’s wildly popular shtick is that of a devoted mom who’s unafraid of the big, mean medical establishment. Parents desperately want to believe that one plucky mom can prove all the experts wrong. Cheap, sexist snark about McCarthy’s Playboy covers only feed her fans’ persecution complex.

There are so many better reasons to dislike McCarthy: She is the single most recognizable public face of the anti-vaccination movement, which persists even though there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism. (McCarthy herself has been forced to shift her rhetoric several times as scientific evidence has debunked core pillars of anti-vaccination dogma.)

Vaccine-preventable diseases are on the rise, thanks to the startling success of the McCarthy-fuelled movement. Nearly 90 percent of kids in the United States still get their 14 recommended shots during their first few years of life. But communities where the anti-vaxxers have taken hold, like Ashland, Ore. and Vashon Island in Washington, have seen outbreaks of preventable diseases that were banished decades ago. Washington, a hotbed of vaccine skepticism, has reported over 2,000 cases of whooping cough this year.

McCarthy has callously said that she’s willing to accept the resurgence of polio and other diseases as a cost of her anti-vaccine crusade. “I do believe sadly it's going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe,” she told Time in 2009.

So don’t judge McCarthy because she posed nude. Judge her because she continues to defend disgraced vaccine researcher Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield lost his medical license after his 1998 paper on MMR and autism was exposed as a fraud. He was secretly working for a lawyer who hired him to concoct a justification for a class action lawsuit against a vaccine manufacturer. Generation Rescue, an autism nonprofit headed by McCarthy, even featured Wakefield on the program of its conference this spring.

And judge her because she gives a platform to quacks who prey on the parents of children with autism. Speakers at her conference touted treatments ranging from the ridiculous (camel’s milk) to the downright dangerous (chemical castration). McCarthy got good press by inviting parents to attend the conference for free, but many of the speakers charge for their dubious remedies.

McCarthy gives her critics so much legitimate ammunition. Let’s not get sidetracked by her breasts.

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