P.L.A. - A Journal of Politics, Law and Autism

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Saturday, November 16, 2002
Thimerosal Update

We recently reported that Dick Armey had put the liability limitation for thimerosal into the Homeland Security Bill. We learn today from the Washington Post (link courtesy of Tom Spencer of Thinking It Through) that Mr. Armey did so at the behest of the White House.

Wampum reports that all Democrats, John McCain and perhaps a few moderate Republicans will try to amend the Homeland Security Bill to remove the thimerosal provision. We shall see.

It now appears that the purpose of the provision is to prohibit state court suits while funneling all litigation into the National Vaccine Injury Fund. Wampum is all over the issue and has some interesting information on FDA regulation of mercury in fish as well.

If Wampum (who has two autistic children) and we seem to perseverate on this issue, do not worry. We inherited it from our kids. (Sorry, a very old autism joke).

One serious concern about the National Vaccine Injury Fund is the three-year statute of limitations. The statute beings to run on the date symptoms first arose. With autistic children, it is sometimes difficult to know when symptoms first arose. Each child develops at his or her own pace. Typical kids often have developmental spurts followed by plateaus. In the 12-24 month range, any such plateau could be seen as a symptom.

Autism is not diagnosed by giving a blood test or an MRI. It is diagnosed by watching a child’s behavior. If the evaluator notes sufficient incidence of certain stereotypical behaviors, then the child is labeled autistic. There is much subjectivity in the evaluation.

It is now clear that Bobby is autistic. It has not always been clear what was causing Bobby’s developmental delays or what the proper diagnosis would be. For higher functioning kids, professionals may disagree on the proper diagnosis for years. In those instances, it will be very difficult or impossible to meet the deadline of three years from the time symptoms first appear.

A more appropriate provision would permit a three-year or longer window after a diagnosis of autism. Such a provision provides parents time to learn what they are dealing with and to make an informed decision as to whether or not to pursue a monetary recovery. Using the date of diagnosis would also establish a bright line for determining when the statute begins to run.

Recently, much has been written about thimerosal, autism and/or the Homeland Security Bill. Among those writing on the subject or linking to others that have written on the subject are Atrios, Jeanne d’Arc, Tom Spencer, Jeff Cooper, Lean Left, Tom Tomarrow, skippy, Lisa English of Ruminate This, Devra of Blue Streak, Martin Wisse of Progressive Gold, the Calpundit, and Gamer's Nook. Those of us in the autism community are grateful to all for their interest and concern.

It is important, however, to stay focused on what is actually known about the relationship, if any, between mercury in vaccines and autism. There have been no studies of which we are aware that demonstrate that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism. Thus, it would be wrong, or at least premature, to conclude that vaccines have caused autism in any child.

Some, however, have suggested that there is no evidence of a link between thimerasol and autism. That is also not true. The increase in the incidence of autism in California coincides with the increased exposure of children to mercury in the form of thimerasol in vaccines. Mercury is known to cause brain damage to some kids at some level of exposure. That is evidence of a link but it is in no way conclusive evidence of causation.

The studies to date that have not located a link between vaccines and autism are flawed in a number of ways and are not, at least in our mind, conclusive. The solution is to conduct additional, better studies.

One such study should occur naturally from the fact that thimerosal is no longer included in childhood vaccinations. If the incidence of autism now begins to drop, that will be powerful, but not necessarily conclusive, evidence of a causal relationship.

Our view of the evidence, however, is itself suspect. We do not and cannot bring objectivity to the subject. We also bring no particular expertise to this issue. The one thing of which we are quite sure is that the answer to whether or not thimerosal causes autism will be found in science and not politics. We desire to discover truth not assess blame.

On that note, we were pleased to learn that Dominion intends to take a look at the issue. Dominion looks at science issues through skeptical eyes. We look forward to his evaluation of the current state of science on the issue. It promises to be far more objective than ours.

Regardless of the ultimate resolution of the issue of whether or not thimerosal causes autism, one aspect of this controversy is not subject to dispute. Our public health system gave mercury to 30,000,000 children in amounts that exceed EPA guidelines. It did so without calculating the amount of mercury being given. It did so without knowing the medical effects of giving that quantity of mercury. A public health system that behaves in that manner is broken. It needs to be fixed.

Update: For abstracts of two studies concerning a link between mercury and autism read today's entry at Wampum. An Arizona State University study concludes that:
Overall, the data suggests that children with autism were exposed to higher levels of mercury, and that they had a decreased ability to excrete mercury due to oral antibiotic use. Since mercury is a known neurodevelopmental toxicant, leading to symptoms similar to autism, our data suggests that mercury poisoning could be an important factor in exacerbating and/or causing many of the symptoms of autism. However, larger, more-controlled studies are needed to test this hypothesis.

A Dangerous Influence

Some people do not wish kids to read Harry Potter books. The Reverend Douglas Taylor of Maine recently held a protest of the release of the second Harry Potter movie. At the protest, he shredded copies of the books (link courtesy of Hesiod). Reverend Taylor could not get a permit to burn the books.

The objections to the Harry Potter books are that they deal with wizards, magic and witchcraft and that children love to read them. The protesters see the series as teaching a "pagan religion.” The story linked to above quotes Reverend Taylor as follows:

"You get involved in this," he said, gesturing toward a Potter book. "It's gonna make you dirty.”

There have been a number of attempts to ban Harry Potter from schools.
ABC News reports:

According to the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, the Harry Potter books were the most challenged books in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Jeremiah Films, a company that calls itself "a notable and powerful voice in today's Christian World" has produced a 60-minute video titled Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged Making Evil Look Innocent. It's part of a crusade to warn parents about the supposed dangers of Harry Potter — such as the broomsticks the kids ride in the books.

"It's a phallic symbol and it's very important in feminine cult worship," said Caryl Matrisciana, co-founder of the film company. "The same with a pointed hat."

She's also upset about the lightning bolt scar on Harry's forehead. "This lightning bolt was considered so important in occult mythology that Hitler used it on his uniforms," Matrisciana said. "It is half of the swastika."

The Rev. Joseph Chambers of Paw Creek Ministries in North Carolina, who has published similar complaints about the books, agreed to talk to me about this after the producers of the video refused.

"One of the signs of the Antichrist will be a mark on the forehead," he said. "It's a how-to course in witchcraft and Satanism. They're actually being taught how to be wizards and witches."

Reverend Taylor and Reverend Chambers are right about a couple of things. First, permitting kids to read Harry Potter books might influence the children. Secondly, the books do lead children to some very dangerous ideas.

Permitting kids to read Harry Potter books teaches kids that reading books is a wonderful experience. Kids that read and love Harry Potter books might even go on to read other books. Reading other books might lead children to all sorts of ideas that the Reverends Taylor and Chambers would abhor. It might even teach them to think for themselves. Thinking for themselves might lead those kids to conclude that Reverend Taylor, Reverend Chambers and their supporters are a group of narrow-minded busy bodies with nothing better to do than to try to limit what other people can read and think.

For Reverends Taylor and Chambers, nothing could be more dangerous than that.

Thursday, November 14, 2002
The Wrong Way and the Right Way

Those of us who write blogs sometimes encounter an argument we believe to be just wrong. We then set out to demonstrate the fallacy of the opposing position. There is a wrong way and a right way to do so.

The wrong way is to reproduce the opposing argument line by line while interposing your opinions unsupported by evidence. The wrong way involves ignoring the author’s thesis and evidence, calling the author names and generally being as snarky as possible. Some call that “Fisking.” “Fisking” is quite easy. No research or evidence is needed. The only requirement is low standards. It is neither smart nor persuasive.

There is also a right way to address an argument that you feel is wrong. The right way involves meticulous research, careful writing and rigorous logic. The right way is hard but it has a chance to inform and persuade.

Go to Alas, A Blog and read what Ampersand has written. Evidence, not attitude, is the key to persuasion. Invective is no substitute for logic. Thanks Ampersand. Your post is what blogging should be.

Homeland Security and Thimerosal

Please welcome Wampum to the left hemisphere of Blogtopia. Wampum writes on progressive politics, Indian issues and autism advocacy. As those issues align nicely with PLA’s point of view, we expect that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Wampum points us to this article in today's New York Times. Atrios is also reporting on this issue.

Republicans, fresh off their victory in last Tuesday’s elections are moving quickly to pass the new Homeland Security bill. Mr. Bush and the Republicans campaigned hard on the issue.

Mr. Bush went so far as to repeatedly allege that Democrats were not interested in the security of the American people. In New Jersey, during the campaign, Mr. Bush suggested that the Democrats were obstructing the Homeland Security bill to favor special interests. Fox News reported:
"The House responded" to the White House version of the bill, Bush said in New Jersey, "but the Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people."

Also during the campaign, the Republicans benefited by a million dollar ad campaign paid for by the drug companies supporting the Republican version of the Prescription Drug bill.

When the Homeland Security Bill was presented, the soon to be retired Dick Armey inserted a special provision into the bill. As the Times reported:
In one last-minute addition, Representative Dick Armey, Republican of Texas, inserted a provision that was apparently intended to protect Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical giant, from lawsuits over thimerosal, a mercury-based vaccine preservative that some parents contend has caused autism in their children.

We wrote on the thimerosal issue yesterday.

We have two questions.

First, what does preventing parents of autistic kids from suing drug companies that put poison in vaccines have to do with Homeland Security?

Secondly, who is more concerned with protecting special interests than with the security and safety of the American people?

Update: Tom Spencer of Thinking It Through has some thought on the Homeland Security Bill as well.

Update: Mark Kleiman is also blogging this issue.

Tuesday, November 12, 2002
Autism, Pure Rage and Thimerosal

One of my blogging rules is to never write when I am angry. This is the sixth time I have tried to write this post and each time I am filled with pure blinding rage. As my rage shows no sign of dissipating, I am going to violate my rule. I will try for fairness in this post. I do not know that I will be able to attain it.

As regular readers of PLA may know, my wife and I have two boys. The youngest, Bobby, is autistic. Bobby is seven and a half years old. He is not yet able to talk. He is still in diapers. Some members of our extended family have suggested that it would be best for all concerned if Bobby were institutionalized. That will not happen as long as I can possibly prevent it. Bobby’s autism, in all likelihood, will prevent him from ever living an independent life. Please read our other posts concerning Bobby and autism here, here, here, and here. Those posts will give you a glimpse into what autism is and how it affects our son and our family.

The best information available to date is that autism is caused by a genetic defect combined with an environmental trigger. The genetic aspect of the cause has always been hard for us. We really do not want to think that we caused our son’s autism. Our brains tell us that we do not control our genes and that Bobby’s autism is not our fault. On an emotional level, that is hard to accept.

The environmental trigger has been easier to deal with. My wife did everything right during her pregnancy. We followed all of the rules. After Bobby’s birth, we were conscientious in doing all of the things that the pediatrician suggested. Bobby missed no appointments. He got all of his vaccinations on time. We felt that the environmental trigger was happenstance. It was something that neither we nor anyone else could predict, control or avoid.

One characteristic of autism is a developmental delay or regression that occurs between the ages of about 15 and 24 months. Bobby could count to 20 and knew much of the alphabet before he was 18 months old. He played interactive games such as “head, shoulders, knees and toes” and “Peek-a-Boo.” We have video of Bobby early in life and he seems engaged, interactive, interested in others and appears to be making eye contact. Around 18 months of age, Bobby simply stopped his development and began to regress. He fell into an autistic shell where he did not make eye contact, was oblivious to other people and did not seek human interaction. He is now seven and cannot count. He has no more understandable language now than he had when he was 18 months old. Bobby’s developmental curve is not atypical for autistic children.

The timing of the developmental regression suggested to some that childhood vaccines were the cause of autism. Those vaccinations occur at about the same time as the regression. In particular, some parents fingered the MMR vaccine as the cause. The weight of evidence, however, suggests otherwise. For instance, a recent large Danish study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that the MMR is not the culprit.

A separate theory is that autism is the result of brain damage caused by mercury poisoning. The New York Times Magazine carried this story last week.

We previously reported on a large California study that showed that the incidence of autism rose dramatically in the 1990s. The study concluded that there are now more than twice as many autistic kids as a decade earlier.

In the 1990s, at the same time as the increase in the incidence of autism, pediatricians began giving additional vaccines to infants. The total number of vaccinations rose from 8 to 20 by the 1990s.

Among the new vaccinations being given in the 1990s was one for hepatitis B. The hepatitis B shot, like some other vaccines, contained the preservative thimerosal. Thimerosal is 50% by weight ethyl mercury. At some levels of exposure, mercury is known to cause brain damage.

The new vaccinations tripled the total amount of mercury contained in shots given to infants. During the 1990s, thirty million American children received vaccinations containing levels of mercury that exceed EPA guidelines.

We are not yet sure that mercury in vaccines causes brain damage and/or autism. More studies are needed. Thimerosal is no longer used as a preservative in vaccines. If thimerosal was the culprit, the incidence of autism should now drop as a result of its removal from the vaccines.

Nonetheless, the question remains:


Dr. Neal Halsey, a pediatrician and former proponent of additional vaccinations, including those containing thimerosal, explained to the New York Times how it became routine to inject children with levels of mercury that exceeded safety guidelines:

My first reaction was simply disbelief, which was the reaction of almost everybody involved in vaccines. In most vaccine containers, thimerosal is listed as a mercury derivative, a hundredth of a percent. And what I believed, and what everybody else believed, was that it was truly a trace, a biologically insignificant amount. My honest belief is that if the labels had had the mercury content in micrograms, this would have been uncovered years ago. But the fact is, no one did the calculation.


The medical establishment knew that it was injecting mercury into my son’s body. It knew that mercury causes brain damage. The medical establishment did not take the care necessary to determine just how much poison they were pumping into Bobby.

It is possible that Bobby is autistic and will never lead a normal life because the medical establishment did not make the effort to add up a row of numbers to determine how much mercury they were injecting into his body.

I am not a person who is quick to anger. Nevertheless, every time I even begin to think about the fact that NO ONE DID THE CALCULATION, pure blinding rage wells up inside me.

If Bobby’s autism is caused by mercury from vaccinations, I pray that the fault lies in some system, procedure or bureaucracy. I do not want it to be a human being with a name and a face who is responsible for Bobby’s autism. I do not know if I could stand it if my rage were focused on an individual.

Some have suggested that parents of autistic kids file suit. All a lawsuit can possibly bring us is money. We do not want money. Who do we see about getting our son back?

Monday, November 11, 2002
What We Should Do Part IV

A National Hope Scholarship Program

We have previously attempted to demonstrate that electoral success can only be found by occupying the center of the political spectrum. The difficulty, of course, is that the center is not always easy to find or easy to occupy. It is time for a specific proposal.

The perfect policy proposal would have all of the following characteristics.

1) It would have significant beneficial effects on the lives of many Americans;

2) It would be easy to explain and the benefits of the policy would be obvious;

3) It would stand as a proxy for the values and ideals of Democrats and create a meme favorable to Democrats;

4) It would energize the base of the Democratic party;

5) It would force Republicans to abandon either the center or their wealthy contributors and benefactors;

6) It would split the base of the Republican Party.

We propose a Federal Hope Scholarship Program modeled after the Georgia Hope Scholarship. Any child who maintains a B average in high school and gains admission to an accredited university would receive a scholarship equal to 100% of the tuition at his or her state university as long as the student maintained good grades in college.

We propose to pay for that program by repealing the portion of the Bush tax cut that benefits the top 1% of income earners (as well as repealing the elimination of the Estate Tax). We frankly have not done the work to accurately calculate the cost of such a program. We suspect that there are 5,000,000 to 7,000,000 college students with B averages. The tuition at the University of Georgia is roughly $3,500.00 per year. If those numbers are accurate (and the number of students is only a guess) then the yearly cost of the program would be $17.5 billion to $21 billion per year, less the savings from eliminating duplicative programs.

The Bush tax cut was more than $1.3 trillion dollars over ten years. The top one percent received approximately 40% of that amount. Repealing that tax cut would generate about $500 billion over the ten-year period. At $17-21 billion per year, the National Hope Scholarship program would be affordable.

The proposed program would meet the criteria set forth above. It would have a substantial beneficial impact on the lives of very many families. The benefits would flow mostly to poor, working class or middle class families.

The program is very easy to explain. It took us one paragraph above. The benefits of such a program will be immediately obvious to any parent of a child approaching college age.

The program provides opportunity for advancement for all while requiring the responsibility of making good grades. As such, it could create a meme that allows it to be a proxy for other Democratic ideas. It is progressive in that it creates educational opportunity. It is egalitarian in that any student with good grades would qualify.

The Democratic base of poor and working class families would be primary beneficiaries of the program and should be energized by it.

The program would sharpen the differences between the parties by showing that the Republicans would rather give tax cuts to CEO’s than college educations to deserving poor and working class kids.

It would split the base of the Republican Party by pitting the interests of the very wealthy against the interests of suburban middle class families.

Ok, so what is wrong with that proposal?

Utterly Wrong

Professor Reynolds, in this post, writes that, “See, the Left has already shown itself utterly wrong with regard to...the economy….”

We are not sure whom Mr. Reynolds considers to be the “left.” If he is talking about Democrats and Republicans, he is “utterly wrong.” This is a subject on which we have blogged repeatedly. We looked at the forty years of Kennedy through Clinton. Consider the following:

1) Economic growth averaged 2.94% under Republican Presidents and 3.92% under Democratic Presidents. See this post.

2) Inflation averaged 4.96% under Republicans and 4.26% under Democrats. See this post.

3) Unemployment averaged 6.75% under Republicans and 5.1% under Democrats. See this post.

4) Total federal spending rose at an average rate of 7.57% under Republican Presidents and at an average rate of 6.96% under Democratic Presidents. See this post.

5) Total non-defense federal spending rose at an average rate of 10.08% under Republicans and at an average rate of 8.34% under Democrats. See this post.

6) During the forty-year period studied, the National Debt grew by $3.8 trillion under budgets submitted by Republican Presidents and by $720 billion under budgets submitted by Democratic Presidents. Stated differently, the average annual deficit under Republicans was $190 billion; and, while under Democrats, it was $36 billion. See this post.

7) During the period studied, under Republican Presidents the number of federal government non-defense employees rose by 310,000, while the number of such employees rose by 59,000 under Democrats. See this post.

Those facts make it difficult to argue that Republican Presidents have done a better job than Democratic Presidents in managing the economy. Indeed, if someone will suggest a measure of economic performance in which Republican Presidents have done better than Democratic Presidents, we will be happy to look into the issue. Surely there must be some measure of economic performance that favors the Republicans; however, we have been unable to locate it.