The Hidden Autism Agenda Behind the Vaccine Case Headed for the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court’s decision to hear a case that asks whether people injured by vaccines can sue their manufacturers in federal and state court could open the door to a Trojan horse. Even though the plaintiffs’ brief in the case doesn’t mention the word “autism” once, a win before the Supremes could flood those courts with more than 5,000 lawsuits advancing the wrong-headed claim that vaccines cause autism.

That, in turn, would tie up non-specialist judges in needless, bogus scientific debates for years. And as the legal costs mount, they could — again — threaten the nation’s vaccine supply.

The lawsuit stems from the special treatment federal law gives vaccine cases. To save time and money, any allegation of injury or death associated with a vaccine gets heard by a federal “vaccine court,” where damages are capped at $250,000. This arrangement is a historic compromise: It gives injured parties somewhere to get justice and protects vaccine makers from the financial ruin these cases would bring if they were heard by regular juries.

The legal issues are complicated, and on its face it appears that drug companies are in the wrong. The law is worded so that no manufacturer is liable for extra damages in a vaccine-related injury or death even if the side effects were “unavoidable.” On that basis, you’d have to be heartless not to sympathize with the plaintiff, Hannah Bruesewitz, who now suffers from seizures after taking a vaccine from a batch made by Wyeth — now Pfizer (PFE) — that was linked to 65 adverse event reports, including two deaths.

The Bruesewitzes want the Supreme Court to rule that the vaccine court is not the only forum for vaccine lawsuits. If they win, those autism cases could get their day in any court they choose. The extra legal costs would almost certainly put vaccine makers out of business.

This, in fact, nearly happened in the 1980s. All but one manufacturer of the diphtheria–pertussis–tetanus vaccine exited the business after a few autism cases went against the companies, even though most experts believe vaccines do not cause autism. The federal vaccine court was created so that patients claiming vaccine injuries could get quick, no-fault compensation at a rate that would allow drug companies to continue producing vaccines.

The nation’s vaccine supply was stabilized, and if you’ve wondered recently why you or your children didn’t die from whooping cough, diptheria or lockjaw, you have the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, and the vaccine court it created, to thank.

Fast forward to 2010, and it’s 1988 all over again: We don’t know what causes autism. We do know that it’s not vaccines. Yet one in four parents believe autism is caused by vaccines. The scientific evidence belies this belief. It’s actually so difficult to convince people that vaccines don’t cause autism that it counts as a genuine sociological phenomenon worthy of academic study. (Here’s a case example: I recently posted on just how shoddy the evidence of a vaccine-autism link really is. But the comments board under that post quickly devolved into a discussion about how vaccines cause autism.)

But I digress. The point is that if the Supremes rule that the vaccine court is not the sole remedy for plaintiffs injured by vaccines, then it will hand an enormous legal and political victory to a group of people whose beliefs — and they are mere beliefs, as this recent column by Jenny McCarthy shows — are simply wrong.

That mistake could threaten the nations’ supply of vaccines and take us back to the days of 1934, when 265,269 people fell ill with whooping cough and 7,518 of them died, according to the Wyeth brief in the case. Today, death by whooping cough is virtually unheard of. By 1984, only 12 people died of it. To succumb to whooping cough today would be like dying of “consumption,”* “dropsy,” or the Black Plague — something worthy of a Monty Python sketch.

And yet that’s where we’re going if the vaccine court is undone and the autism activists are able to sue drug companies out of existence.

* Consumption is the same thing as tuberculosis, which plenty of people still die of. Apologies for the error.


The Hidden Autism Agenda Behind the Vaccine Case Headed for the Supreme Court, Jim Edwards, CBS Interactive Inc.,, March 9, 2010.

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