033016-ART CAPLAN.mp3

Robert De Niro pulled a controversial anti-vaccination film from the Tribeca Film Festival, after intense public pressure to withdraw the film. Vaxxed focuses on the work of Andrew Wakefield, a discredited doctor who published a study linking autism to vaccination. De Niro, who has an autistic child, said he originally wanted to show the film to “provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family.”

De Niro’s change of heart was well-received by the medical and scientific community, including medical ethicist Art Caplan, who spoke with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on Boston Public Radio Wednesday.

“Why Robert De Niro thought this film deserved any sort of a place at the Tribeca Film Festival is beyond me,” Caplan said. “[Wakefield is] probably responsible for more preventable deaths than almost any other doctor I can think of, outside of concentration camp activities.”

The fact that it got all this attention just recycles the old rumors about vaccines and autism.

According to Caplan, this film was a desperate attempt at credibility from a discredited doctor.  “He didn’t reveal that he was working for a law firm that was trying to sue vaccine people,” he said. “He had his own ideas about what the mechanism was… he got discredited, the paper got yanked, he lost his medical license… the movie is his attempt to keep his theories going and his reputation intact.”

Wakefield and the creators of Vaxxed reacted with an statement online, claiming that their message had been censored. “We have just witnessed yet another example of the power of corporate interests censoring free speech, art, and truth,” read a statement from Wakefield and Producer Del Bigtree. “Tribeca’s action will not succeed in denying the world access to the truth behind the film Vaxxed.”

Ultimately, free speech does not ensure a spot at a prominent film festival, Caplan says. “No one said Wakefield doesn’t have free speech, he could rent a hall and show his movie, or put it on YouTube, but he doesn’t get a platform as part of the Tribeca Film Festival as part of his free speech,” Caplan said. “If I made a movie and sent it in, I doubt they would show it.”

Even if the film is pulled, the damage is already done, Caplan says. De Niro entertaining the idea of showing the film, and then pulling it, will only inspire the anti-vaxxer community to spread the message. "The fact that it got all this attention just recycles the old rumors about vaccines and autism."

Medical Ethicist Art Caplan is Head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center and the co-host of the Everyday Ethics podcast. To hear more of his interview with BPR, click on the audio link above.