Antivaccine nonsense Autism Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery

The real “evidence of harm”

I haven’t written before about the tragic case of Katie McCarron, the three year old autistic girl whose mother killed her in May 2006. It’s an incredibly sad tale, and others have covered it better. However, the trial started last week, and on Friday there was some testimony that suggests an effect of all the antivaccination fear-mongering that blames autism on either mercury in thimerosal-containing vaccines (a contention against which strong evidence was published just last week, to add to all the other studies that show no link between thimerosal and autism) or vaccines in general. Indeed, this latter claim appears to be the new tact that antivaccinationists are starting to take, now that evidence against the involvement of thimerosal in autism causation is so strong that even zealots are having trouble defending the hypothesis that mercury in vaccines cause autism.

I’m not going to rehash those arguments here (at least not much), because, as far as I’m concerned, there’s already far more than enough evidence to refute the contention that mercury in vaccines is a major cause of autism. I’m more interested in considering a consequence of all this antivaccination hysteria that is seldom discussed outside of discussion boards frequented by parents of autistic children. I’m talking about guilt. I’m talking about guilt so severe that, when coupled with her depression, it drove Karen McCarron to kill her daughter:

PEKIN, Ill. – A woman accused of killing her autistic daughter testified yesterday that she attempted to suffocate the 3-year-old with a pillow three days before she succeeded with a plastic garbage bag.

Karen McCarron said she couldn’t go through with it using the pillow. When prosecutor Kevin Johnson asked her how long she held the bag over the toddler’s head soon after, she replied about two minutes – until the child, Katie, stopped struggling.

In a videotaped confession played in court Thursday, McCarron said she began having thoughts of hurting her daughter a year before the May 2006 slaying but put them out of her mind. On the day of the killing, though, the thoughts were stronger than ever.

“They were so intense,” McCarron said.

McCarron, 39, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to murder, obstructing justice, and concealment of a homicidal death. She was found mentally fit to stand trial, but a medical specialist hired by her attorneys has said she was insane at the time of the killing.

The trial resumes Monday.

McCarron, a former pathologist, testified that she felt responsible for Katie’s autism because she allowed the child to get vaccinated.

It “brought me a great deal of guilt,” she said.

According to a different news account:

She said “it was unbearable. I felt I caused Katie’s autism. I felt vaccinating her would not help her. It brought me a great deal of guilt.”

That’s right, guilt. Bombarded by the unrelenting message from the mercury militia, antivaccinationists, and the pseudoscientists who enable them, McCarron believed that vaccines caused Katie’s autism. Even though she was a former pathologist and should have known better, she believed the message, another example of how medical training is not necessarily a guarantee of being immune to such ideas.

Of course, McCarron is an extreme case, and there appeared to have been a significant element of mental illness involved in her decision to commit murder. Even so, her case is illustrative of the real “evidence of harm” that comes from the rhetoric of equating autism with “mercury poisoning” or “vaccine injury.” It’s not just the fear of vaccines that such rhetoric produces, fear that leads parents to avoid vaccination even if they have to lie about their religion to do it. It’s not just the problem of the vaccination rate plummeting below the level necessary for herd immunity in response to this sort of rhetoric, leading to the return of previously controlled diseases, as the measles have returned in the U.K. in the nine years since Andrew Wakefield unleashed trial lawyer-backed pseudoscience claiming that the MMR vaccine causes autism and autistic enterocolitis. Rather, it’s the guilt that racks each and every parent who comes to believe that vaccines caused their child’s autism.

Consider what they are told by the people pushing the message that either mercury in vaccines or, now that more and more studies have been done that have failed to find a link between thimerosal and autism have been done, that it is the vaccines themselves. They are told that the vaccines caused their child’s autism, that it could have been avoided if they had only not vaccinated. Yes, there will be the disclaimer that “you didn’t know and it’s not your fault,” but who wouldn’t blame himself or herself for a child’s autism if convinced that vaccines really did cause autism? But it’s more than that. The whole “biomedical” movement also tells parents that, not only are they responsible for their child’s autism, but they are responsible if their children remain autistic. In other words, if they don’t embark upon the “biomedical” interventions that are claimed without any good scientific evidence to “cure” autism, interventions like chelation therapy, gluten-free diets, and even chemical castration, they are even more guilty in that, according to the antivaccinationists and biomedical proponents, they are denying their children a chance to be “normal.”

Worse, as “evidence” of how they have the power to reverse their child’s autism, they are treated to glowing testimonials of how allegedly effective these modalities are, testimonials that neglect to consider that autism is a condition of developmental delay, not developmental stasis. Normal progress is attributed to whatever woo du jour to which the child is being subjected. On the ridiculous end of the scale, we even have bubble-brained idiots like Jenny McCarthy saying that she has “cured” her child of autism and that if she were to let up one bit on her regimen of supplements and various other “biomedical” interventions (or got him vaccinated) he would become autistic again. Against this backdrop, for parents who fall into this culture, simple acceptance of their child’s autism is tantamount to an admission of defeat and is not tolerated. The combination of guilt over being told that their vaccinating their child caused his autism and the message that there is a “cure” leads all too many parents to exhaust their savings going from “therapy” to “therapy,” trying to “fix” their child. When combined with mental illness of the sort Karen McCarron apparently had, it can lead to the “ultimate” fix:

Karen McCarron said she killed her child hoping to “fix her” and give her peace in heaven.

“Maybe I could fix her this way, and in heaven she would be complete,” she said on the tape.

Or, even more bluntly:

“When you were suffocating your daughter, did you think you were killing her?” Wolfe asked McCarron.


“Who did you think you were killing?”


Never mind that, according to Katie’s grandfather, Katie was a “beautiful, precious and happy little girl.” To McCarron, Katie had become autism, something that had to die.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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