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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.

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

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