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Monday, February 11, 2013

A Critical View of Tom Harkin

Previous posts have discussed retiring Senator Tom Harkin's record on seclusion and restraint, as well as other disability issues. At National Review Online, Ari Schulman takes a critical view of the Iowa Democrat's record on science, including two issues of concern to the autism community: dietary supplements and vaccines.
Harkin also helped craft the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which effectively allows companies to sell herbal remedies as dietary supplements, putting the burden on the FDA to prove a product unsafe rather than on the manufacturer to prove it safe. Although arguably a sound move with respect to simple supplements, this law also allows untested products to be marketed as drugs as long as they are accompanied by fine-print disclaimers that (wink wink) they don’t actually claim to treat any disease. As Consumer Reports puts it, this leaves “consumers without the protections surrounding the manufacture and marketing of over-the-counter or prescription medications.” The most notable example of the law’s danger was the sale of the weight-loss pill ephedra, which was banned by the FDA in 2004 after it was found to have caused severe side effects and death in a number of cases.
In addition to promoting dubious research, Harkin has lent credence to the idea that vaccines cause autism, repeatedly asking at a 2009 Senate hearing (around 1:54:00 in the video) why there have been no studies that randomly assign some children to be vaccinated or not vaccinated so that the relative rates of autism can be compared. Harkin essentially ignored the response by Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, that the vaccine-autism link has been conclusively refuted by years of research and that such a study would be not only impractical but also unethical, as it would leave the control group unvaccinated against childhood diseases.
Typical of the rhetorical stance of those who continue to suggest a link between vaccines and autism, Harkin avoided any direct suggestion, instead hiding behind a guise of “just asking questions.” His questioning was praised by groups who tout the vaccine-autism link.