I always suspected it was a matter of time before anti-vaccination hysteria took off with the right. It has all the markers of a right wing hysteria---the anti-intellectualism, the anti-modernity, the whiff of a death-cultish desire not to fight suffering in the world---that make it just too juicy a fruit for right-wing nuts not to pick. And I knew when they did it would spell disaster. Manias for bad science and health practices take off in the left, but they usually die. But when right-wingers get hold of conspiracy theories, those theories live on forever in whisper campaigns and in forwarded emails. Dentists are still plagued, for instance, with right-wing nuts paranoid about fluoride in the drinking water, even though it’s been decades since their claims that the water is contaminated with mind-control agents or sterilants have been disproved.
So it was with a heavy heart that I noted that anti-choicers like Jill Stanek have started to claim that vaccines cause autism because...they’re "made from aborted fetuses." I made fun of these claims here, and Jill Stanek then went on a warpath through various online publications and Twitter, trying to claim that I was so wrong when it came to my skepticism that autism was caused by injecting children with ground-up aborted fetuses. (She also stood by her claims that doctors eat fetuses.) Usually, this kind of paranoia is beneath my attention, but anti-vaccination nuttiness has been tied to a resurgence of diseases like the measles here and in the UK, so just ignoring this and hoping it’ll go away isn’t cutting it.
There are two separate claims being made by anti-choice conspiracy theorists, and I’ll take them one at a time.
1) Claim #1: That vaccines are made with aborted fetuses. Once called out on this, Stanek tried to establish plausible deniability by using the term “fetal vaccine lines.” But in her WND column, she openly says vaccines contain “aborted fetal cells." The image Stanek clearly wants to project into her audience’s mind is that of abortion providers carefully storing aborted fetuses and selling them to evil pharmaceutical companies, who put them in vaccines to inject in your children.
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What’s the truth of the matter? Stanek links a Salon article for “proof” that vaccines are made with aborted fetuses, and obviously she hopes her readers won’t click through to read it. (They won’t.) That’s because the article she links says no such thing. The writer is respected science journalist Chris Mooney, and he says the claim that vaccines are made from ground-up fetuses comes from the fact that some vaccines are made using the MRC-5 line as a substrate.
What makes MRC-5 so controversial? According to a 1970 article in the British journal Nature, the cell line was originally derived in 1966 from the lung tissues of a male fetus "removed for psychiatric reasons from a 27-year-old woman." In other words, MRC-5 was created from an abortion.
Is this the same as using ground-up fetuses in vaccines? No. These cell lines aren’t fetuses, babies, embryos, or anything like them. Comparing a cell line to a fetus is like saying that the oil in the ground is the exact same thing as a dinosaur. Cell lines come from different places for different reasons. One of the current best-selling books in the country is about a similar cell line derived from a cervical cancer patient. No one, I hope, would be foolish enough to suggest that the polio vaccine derived from this cell line has cancer “taint” to it. No one would suggest that getting these vaccines means the patient Henrietta Lacks is being injected directly into you, or you’re somehow getting her essence.
But that’s just what Stanek is doing when she implies that the 40-year-old origins of this particular cell line imbue the vaccines with some kind of taint, and that presumably causes autism. Blogger Orac, who is an actual surgeon and scientist, put her belief this way:
But it's the nasty DNA, which must somehow "remember" the trauma of abortion from so long ago. Either that, or the DNA is indelibly tainted with the evil of abortion. Or so it would appear that the argument goes, because there's really no plausible reason to postulate that incredibly tiny amounts of degraded DNA that might remain from those cells--if any remains at all--could somehow cause autism.
Let’s just say it shouldn’t surprise us that anti-choicers are grasping for a way to blame female sexuality for unrelated diseases like autism. Many of them come from a religious faith that blames all evil that entered the world on an overly curious, sexual woman. Since abortion is their preferred symbol for the evils of uncontrolled female sexuality, this isn’t that surprising. (Read Orac’s entire post; it’s fascinating and refutes this nonsense even further.)
But let’s look at the science behind the claim that vaccines cause autism.
2) Claim #2: That abortions cause autism. Stanek denies claiming this outright. She instead claims it by implication, using a technique that skeptics call "JAQing off". Definition:
JAQing off is the act of spouting accusations while cowardly hiding behind the claim of "Just Asking Questions". The strategy is to keep asking leading questions in an attempt to influence listeners' views; the term is derived from the frequent claim by the denialist that they are "just asking questions," albeit in a manner much the same as political push polls.
See the headline of this WND piece: “Vaccines made with fetal cells causing autism?” That question mark isn’t there because they’re asking a question. That’s the CYA/plausible deniability question mark, designed to turn an accusation into a faux question. The conclusion they want you to reach---which is yes---is beyond doubt.
Stanek claims to simply be asking questions about whether or not dead fetuses in vaccines cause autism, by using misleading charts that basically make it clear that she thinks the answer is yes. The charts show that autism rates went up after certain childhood vaccinations were approved. By using her techniques, we can actually say-without-saying quite a bit.
For instance, did you know that Jill Stanek was born in 1944, according to Wikipedia? And that the very next year, the atomic bomb was first tested, and at that test, developer Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad-Gita in saying, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” This raises many interesting questions:
- How much impact did Stanek’s birth have on the destruction of major cities of Japan?
- By being born, did Stanek usher in the most life-destroying technology ever invented?
- Is Jill Stanek Death, the destroyer of worlds?
- What role did Stanek’s birth play in causing the Cold War?
In the realm of medicine, a similar example comes to mind. Much of the development of penicillin occurred between July and November 1941. Pearl Harbor was bombed just a month later, starting WWII. To make this even more troubling, penicillin was actually discovered in 1928---merely a year before the stock market crash that started the Great Depression. Questions:
- Is taking penicillin facilitating worldwide economic catastrophe and war?
- Do the lives saved by penicillin make up for the death toll of WWII?
- Do antibiotics carry a moral stain that cause more diseases than they fix?
I’m just asking questions!
The logical fallacy in play here is the "correlation equals causation" fallacy, which is a favorite of anti-vaccination activists, because they don’t have any actual evidence to back up their claims and hint-dropping. There is no evidence that vaccines are linked to autism. The single study linking autism to vaccines was such bad science that the Lancet did what they never do, and retracted it. Not vaccinating your kids because they’ll get autism is like not making your kids wearing seatbelts because the leprechauns will snatch them.
Stanek claimed on Twitter that she wasn’t trying to discourage people from vaccinating their kids by implying that it will make them autistic. Of course, I can’t think of any other reason you’d imply against all scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism. If I said, “Hey, I hear that sitting next to Jill Stanek is linked to getting cooties,” I can’t claim that I wasn’t trying to discourage sitting next to Jill Stanek.
What this should put to rest finally is anti-choice claims that they’re “pro-life.” After all, nothing in human history to date has ever been more pro-life in reality than vaccines. Vaccines have wiped or nearly wiped out diseases that have plagued, disabled, and killed millions upon millions of human beings throughout history. This obsession with anti-vaccination conspiracy theories reveals the truth about activist anti-choicers, which is that they’re anti-science, anti-medicine, anti-intellectual, anti-modern, and so obsessed with demonizing female sexuality that they’ll blame any ill on it, no matter how strained the logic.