We have learned that Rep. Dan Burton (R-Pompous) has been given the go-ahead to hold hearings on vaccines and autism before the House Oversight Committee. Congressional attention, even from someone as unhinged as Burton, gives anti-vaccine groups the vapors. One group, SAFEMINDS, sent out a press release in August claiming “Congressman Darrell Issa, Chair of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, has promised a hearing on the problems with the Vaccine Court and at the CDC regarding autism/vaccine research,” and urged fellow travelers to contact their representatives. Now Issa has told Burton he can have his hearing.
This is Burton’s last term representing a district that encompasses central Indiana. He was first elected in 1982. Whether Burton seizes the brass ring and schedules a hearing is yet to be seen.
When we last heard from Burton, he was overseeing six separate congressional hearings on vaccines an autism, between 2000 and 2003. A star-studded line up of anti-vaccine quacks and misfits answered the call, including Andrew Wakefield, Boyd Haley, and Jeff Bradstreet. Die-hard political junkies remember Burton from 1994 when he invited reporters to his backyard to watch him shoot a pumpkin. Why, you might ask, was the honorable Congressman from Indiana shooting a pumpkin? Why, to prove that Bill Clinton murdered Vince Foster! Burton publicly referred to Bill Clinton a “scumbag”, even though Burton himself had fathered a child out of wedlock in 1983.
In 1995, during congressional hearings on the US War on Drugs, Burton suggested that the US “should place an aircraft carrier off the coast of Bolivia and crop dust the coca fields.” This plan proved to be unworkable primarily because (1) Bolivia is landlocked and thus has no coast (Burton was chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee at the time); 2) the Andes mountain range is in the way; and 3) F-18s are not crop dusters. When Bolivians heard Burton’s suggestion, they dragged their feet on US drug eradication efforts, which means Burton actually hurt the very cause he was trying to help.
Sound familiar? Burton, who has a grandson with autism, was also trying to help when he gave Congressional imprimatur to the unproven and implausible vaccine-autism connection. Anti-vaccine groups have been drawing on Burton’s hearing ever since for inspiration, and citing quotes such as:
“Whether it was the MMR shot or the mercury that was in these other vaccines, or a combination of the two, I do not know. But I do know that hundreds of thousands of children in this country and around the world are suffering because of autism, and many of them are suffering from autism shortly after having received one or more of these vaccines”
One academic, studying how anti-vaccine myths resonate, also noticed Rep. Burton. In Vying for credibility in the US Congress: legitimating symbols in the debate over immunization and autism, medical anthropologist Maya Ponte wrote:
In Burton’s rhetoric, the eyes play an important role as the purveyors of truth. He often makes evidentiary statements that turn on the use of this sensory organ: “I saw it with my own eyes, so something happened” (US House of Representatives 2001), or “My only grandson became autistic right before my eyes” (US House of Representatives 2002a). To Burton, seeing, in a simple and straightforward sense, is believing. He ties the evidentiary legitimacy of sight to his religious tradition: “I do not like to quote scripture very often, but there is none so blind as those that will not see” (US House of Representatives 2002b)
Burton’s hearing would be more than just his second bite at the mercury-laced apple. The timing is important to those with an anti-vaccine agenda. It’s been over a year since Fox News was trumpeting a new “study” that supposedly shows the US government has been quietly paying off victims of vaccine-induced autism. Soon after, the authors held court at a Congressional briefing attending by nine staffers, and credulous media followed along: a Boston Fox News affiliate called the coffee klatsch a “congressional hearing”, and Fox and Friends called the paper “an important study.” So the folks who want to leave our children vulnerable to preventable diseases, while dehumanizing persons with autism, think they have momentum on their side.
The anti-vaccine movement has little to cheer about these days. Its hero. Mr. Andrew Wakefield, is holding press conferences in gun club shelters, and sharing the stage with 9/11 Truthers. Jenny McCarthy has gone silent on vaccines, and can only write for the Chicago Sun Times on the condition that she avoids dishing medical advice. Dan Burton, once the poster child for right-wing zealotry and 20th century Know Nothingness, will be in fine company.