By Jane Johnson
My daughter and I showed up in the very pretty and obviously extremely expensive lobby of the Peninsula Hotel, where we were met by a couple of attractive but chilly young women who informed me that we weren’t on the list. I explained that I hadn’t even heard about the meeting until about 10 pm, but had tried to reserve a slot then. Finally they took my card, scurried upstairs, and returned to tell me we would be allowed in. We went upstairs, where they told us it was for members of the press only (bless Spectrum’s Cris Italia—he tried to pull us in), and they were concerned they wouldn’t have enough seats. I offered to wait and see if spare seats were an issue, and they sent us back down to the lobby.
By that point Katie Wright and some other parents were milling around, along with an impossibly beautiful, adorable little boy named Rome. We chatted for a while, until they came back down and apologized, and—eureka!—let me and my daughter in.
It was in a very small room, so we weren’t all that far away from the panel. (I have to say it felt odd sitting that close to Paul Offit. There are few human beings toward whom I feel so much anger.) Each person on the panel spoke in turn, and said exactly what you’d expect them to say. Amanda Peet kept harping on the fact that there’s mercury and aluminum in breast milk, which seemed a little weird. I’m not sure why that’s supposed to cheer me up. She, Offit, and others continually presented it as, once again, science vs. parents—all of the scientific data on the one side, hysterical anti-science parents on the other.
The Q and A was similarly useless—reporters from places like Entertainment Weekly who were most interested in the Peet-McCarthy battle. Even though Amanda had already been pretty explicit about her opinion that parents shouldn’t listen to celebrities, they kept trying to draw her into saying something as offensive as her parasites comment (she didn’t).
I kept raising my hand, dying to ask “Dr. Bernadine Healy, former head of NIH, current member of the IOM, says that the epidemiological studies used to disprove a connection between vaccines and autism are useless, and that fellow colleagues on the IOM have explicitly said that they don’t want to look because they’re afraid of what they might find. Comments?” But they never called on me. Bless their hearts though, they did call on Mary Holland, who did a spectacular job of calling them out on the notion that there’s no science on the vaccine-concerned side, and referred to Dr. Healy’s comments. Cris, Kevin Barry, my daughter, and I all burst into applause. Offit calmly responded that Dr. Healy must not have done any research. Is there a word for that level of arrogance? I can’t think of one. The gall to suggest that someone of Dr. Healy’s stature would casually pick at the vaccine program and accuse her colleagues of intentionally avoiding the truth is almost impressive, if frightening.
Then Mrs. Carter had to leave and the conference broke up. Katie and the other parents were outside and across the street, bravely chanting and waving signs (they took mine away from me before they let me into the conference).
What’s fascinating is that they don’t seem to understand that the controversy persists because the science supporting safety is lacking. They really seem to believe that a new website accompanied by PSAs starring Ms. Peet and an aggressive PR campaign will make parents’ concerns go away.
Jane Johnson is the director of Defeat Autism Now! and the co-author of Bryan Jepson's CHANGING THE COURSE OF AUTISM (Click here.) She also sits on the board of directors of Thoughtful House and ARI. She lives in New York City, where she spends a lot of time fretting about the fact that two of her three children are about to leave the nest.