How did Jenny McCarthy earn a platform at a cancer fundraiser?

The anti-vaccine crusader has just been dropped from an Ottawa fundraiser. Science-ish asks why she was there in the first place

Update Feb. 1, 5:15p.m.:

The Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation has announced that Jenny McCarthy has been dropped from their fundraiser. 

“To be honest, we didn’t expect this kind of response,” Linda Eagen, president and chief executive of the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation told the Ottawa Citizen. “When we started to get that (negative) feedback where people were talking about anything but cancer, we just decided to move away from that.”

McCarthy tweeted the change of plans on her Twitter account: “So so sorry Ottawa! I had to pull out of event because of my new show taping conflict but will be back in a few months to make up for it!”

Science-ish blogger Julia Belluz wrote this column before the decision was announced: 

They say all publicity is good publicity, which can be the only way to explain why anti-vaccine campaigner Jenny McCarthy has been invited to appear at an Ottawa breast-cancer fundraiser next month.

McCarthy will be a guest fitness instructor at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation’s March 2 “Bust A Move” event, which boasts Laureen Harper and an oncologist on its leadership committee. Inviting an anti-vaxxer to a health fundraiser is like getting Lance Armstrong to keynote a conference on honest sportsmanship. It’s just science-ish.

McCarthy is, after all, a pseudoscience peddler, credited with helping to bring back such vaccine-preventable diseases as measles and whooping cough. On the media rounds she has explained how vaccines gave her son Evan autism, which she cured with a special diet and supplements.  She also promotes other autism therapies, like the hyperbaric oxygen chamber.

Sadly, there is no cure for autism. The link between vaccine and autism is not controversial within the scientific community because it’s been discredited. Read all about it here. In sum: The study on which the vaccine-autism theory is based involved 12 children and no control group. It has been retracted and revealed to be a work of data manipulation. Of course, Andrew Wakefield—who authored the report and lost his medical licence for misconduct—co-wrote a book with McCarthy, titled Callous Disregard.

Here’s how event chair Bernice Rachkowski explained the committee’s choice to the Ottawa Citizen: “She’s funny, she’s very much a people person, she’s vivacious and full of life.” Plus, Rachkowski added, “she also appeals to our target demographic because we want to engage younger women in being aware of breast cancer, how to prevent it and to be aware of all the help that is available if they, their aunt or mom are going through it.”

In response, one of Canada’s leading infectious disease experts, Dr. Noni MacDonald, told Science-ish, “Jenny McCarthy is likely all the things this woman is saying, but she also disseminates misinformation that may be harmful to children.”

Since the news of McCarthy’s Ottawa appearance, a #DropJenny hashtag has spawned on Twitter, and local skeptics have lashed out. Dr. Joe Schwarcz (PhD), director of McGill University’s office for science and society, told Science-ish, “If an anti-vaccine (promoter) is what is needed to attract young women, I’m worried.” It seems the only link McCarthy has with health research is that she likes to routinely deny it. 

Schwarcz questioned if a credible Ottawa foundation is doing public health a disservice by giving McCarthy a platform. Dr. MacDonald asked if McCarthy will be paid with funds that were raised for regional cancer services. “Who would want to donate to an organization that chooses to pay someone well known for spreading false and dangerous information?”

Science-ish also wonders what the event says about the state of public-health discourse in Canada. Why is McCarthy a go-to health promoter? She actively works against science, and the best-available research evidence contradicts her messages. It’s not clear what drives her work in health, other than the fact she makes money selling lies.

Science-ish tried but was unable to contact Jenny McCarthy, Dr. Susan Dent, medical expert on the Bust A Move board, and event chair Bernice Rachkowsk. The communications co-ordinator and CEO at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation also did not reply. 

In an effort to better understand how McCarthy became the celebrity face of breast health in Ottawa, here are questions Science-ish hopes the charity will answer. Science-ish will happily update this story when they do:

  1. Were you aware of McCarthy’s anti-vaccine views when you chose her for the Bust A Move event?
  2. Are you concerned about the public health implications of this choice?
  3. Do you see a conflict between McCarthy’s health messages and your work for health promotion?
  4. Do you really think McCarthy was the best choice to speak on health?
  5. How much is McCarthy being paid to appear at the event?
  6. Will those fees come from money raised for breast-cancer services?

Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’s, the Medical Post and the McMaster Health Forum. Julia Belluz is the senior editor at the Medical Post. Got a tip? Seen something that’s Science-ish? Message her at or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto