Skip to main content

Jenny McCarthy and fear-based parenting

By David M. Perry, Special to CNN
July 17, 2013 -- Updated 2044 GMT (0444 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jenny McCarthy is joining ABC's "The View" -- one of the most visible morning TV shows
  • David Perry: The criticism toward hiring McCarthy focus on her anti-vaccine stance
  • He says McCarthy has made statement about vaccines that are false and dangerous
  • Perry: Now that she has a bigger platform, what dangerous ideas will she seize on?

Editor's note: David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. His blog is How Did We Get Into This Mess. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Jenny McCarthy is joining ABC's "The View" -- one of the most visible morning TV shows in America.

In the press announcement, Barbara Walters said of her, "Jenny brings us intelligence as well as warmth and humor. She can be serious and outrageous."

Let's talk about the outrages.

Much of the criticism toward hiring McCarthy, including mine, has focused on her stance against vaccines.

David Perry
David Perry

She has repeatedly claimed that that vaccines played a major role in giving her son autism, that he "recovered" from autism thanks to a special diet, and the government and medical establishment did not bother to investigate her son's recovery. She argues that we vaccinate too much, too quickly, and that the research on a link between autism and vaccines should continue. Her charity, Generation Rescue, continues to question the safety of vaccines and sponsors events starring anti-vaccine advocates, such as Andrew Wakefield, a disgraced British doctor.

Let us be clear: The statements she has made about vaccines are deceitful and dangerous.

If you're curious about the anti-vaccine scare and McCarthy's part in spreading misinformation, read "The Panic Virus" by Seth Mnookin or follow the work of Phil Plait. If you think a few parents choosing not to vaccinate their children has no impact on your life, Plait and Mnookin (and the CDC and pretty much every pediatrician) will gladly refute that misconception.

McCarthy's controversial vaccine 'View'

But beyond the damage she's already caused, I'm worried about what she's going to do next, now that she has an even bigger platform.

McCarthy has displayed a willingness to leap into new belief systems and promote them to people hungry for answers.

Her journey through the world of hunch-based parenting has taken a number of twists and turns. In 2006, as recounted by Mnookin, a random woman told McCarthy that her son was a "Crystal" and McCarthy an "Indigo." Suddenly, McCarthy plunged into the new age philosophy of Indigo moms and their Crystal children -- believed to be the next phase of human evolution.

That never took off so she dumped it and moved on to the anti-vaccine movement. She landed time with Oprah and Rosie, and wrote multiple books on "healing autism." Although her TV and movie career eventually stalled, her popularity among desperate parents, discredited scientists, sellers of snake oil, and conspiracy theorists has apparently propelled her back into the spotlight.

"The View" is watched by millions of people, many of whom are parents of young children, a staple market for daytime TV.

Parents are more likely to jump at "fads" rather than sticking to "evidence-based" parenting. It's hard to blame them for this characteristic -- they are primed to be afraid.

Parents are told that unless they buy a given product, their child will get sick, learn too slowly, fail to flourish, or even die. Being a parent requires so many leaps of faith on a day-to-day basis. We just hope and pray that we're getting it mostly right.

When someone claims to have answers, especially someone with the intelligence and charisma of a Jenny McCarthy, parents are easy targets.

In the world of special needs parenting, a world to which both McCarthy and I belong, parents are even more afraid and seek answers. Doctors present parents like us with long lists of risk factors and complicated prognoses. The days are hard, laden with therapies, doctor visits, worries about medical expenses, estate planning, schooling, bullying, transportation, and so much more. All of the fears become magnified. I don't want you to pity parents of children with special needs, but do understand that many of us are looking for answers to questions we barely understand.

Parents of children with autism, in particular, have proven especially susceptible to fraud and fear. Life with autism can be hard. Studies found that stress levels for primary caregivers of children with autism compare to those of soldiers deployed in combat zones.

Some parents have not only followed McCarthy's decision to create a gluten-free/casein-free diet, as still advocated on her organization's website, but have pursued much more extreme measures. At this year's Autism One/Generation Rescue conference in Chicago, many sessions focused on costly stem-cell treatments, though no science supports the idea that injecting a child with stem cells will cure autism.

In previous years, panels at the same conference have promoted the practice of giving autistic children bleach orally and as an enema -- all as part of a detox method (predicated on the idea that autism is an environmental disease).

Parents who do this are not cruel; they're just looking for hope.

Enter Jenny McCarthy, a woman who evangelizes. She jumps at fads, hunches, intuitions and really bad ideas. She believes them. She makes them hers. Then she builds institutions to promote them with the full-throated roar of a new convert.

McCarthy has profited handsomely from her outrageous views. She is intelligent, funny and persuasive. She writes books that sell very well. Her organizations throw successful events. She is a tireless promoter of her ideas. And now she's a host on "The View."

What idea will she seize on next? What dangerous fad will she claim needs more study? How many parents, at home in the morning, will be persuaded? I'm deeply disappointed that Barbara Walters and ABC have decided to let us find out the answers to these troubling questions.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David M. Perry.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 19, 2014 -- Updated 1710 GMT (0110 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT