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updated 8/16/2005 10:46:58 AM ET 2005-08-16T14:46:58

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court. Are his religious beliefs an appropriate area of inquiry? The Vatican has criticized Catholic governors and legislators for supporting abortion rights. Should the same scrutiny apply to Catholic judges? With us: the former three-term Democratic governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, and the former dean of the Catholic University School of Law, Douglas Kmiec.

Then, 500,000 American children have autism. The diagnosis rate has gone from one in 10,000 births in the '80s to one in 166 births in 2003. Why the increase? What's the cause? Why is there such controversy, with charges of a government conspiracy? With us: the president of the Institute of Medicine, Dr. Harvey Fineberg, and the author of "Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic," David Kirby.

And in our MEET THE PRESS Minute, 40 years ago this weekend, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, an issue of huge importance to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who appeared right here, August 21, 1966.

But first: On September 6, John Roberts will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Should he be questioned about his religious beliefs and how they might affect his judicial responsibilities? Joining us: the former dean of Catholic University School of Law, Douglas Kmiec, and the former governor of New York, with whom I worked some two decades ago, Mario Cuomo.

Welcome, both.

PROF. DOUGLAS KMIEC: Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT: Professor, let me show you and our viewers portions of a piece you wrote for The Wall Street Journal.

"Yes, the late Pope John Paul II admonished Catholic public officials to work legislatively to limit abortion ... But there is not one iota of church teaching demanding that a judge or justice exceed the scope of his office to undo, on solely religious grounds, the public law of abortion or any other matter."

Why is there a difference between what is expected of a Catholic politician, legislator or governor, and a Catholic judge?

PROF. KMIEC: Well, I think it goes to the nature of the separation of powers, who a judge is. A judge is not intended by our constitutional structure, nor understood by the Catholic Church as a policymaker, as a lawmaker. Governor Cuomo said it well in print a few years ago. He said, "Judges are different." They're given independence because they're expected to follow the written law of the Constitution and the written law enacted by Congress and to respect the laws of the states. That's a different matter than whether or not you're a policymaker and you're exercising your common wisdom, your faith, your science, your knowledge of the world to try and shape policy.

MR. RUSSERT: Is it appropriate to ask John Roberts when he believes life begins?

PROF. KMIEC: I don't think these things are relevant to his service on the Supreme Court of the United States. I think it's interesting to know the answer to that question from any person, but it's not relevant to his duties as a Supreme Court justice.

MR. RUSSERT: Governor, what's relevant?

FMR. GOV. MARIO CUOMO, (D-NY): Well, I don't think that there's any question but that religion is very relevant now, more relevant than it has been for a long time. Religion is an important subject in this country, has been from the beginning. But now, especially in recent years, thanks to Republican conservatives pushing it on government, and a president who, for example, makes a faith-based judgment on stem cells, is very strong on abortion on the grounds that any abortion, even to save the life of the mother, is murder, religion is a very important subject.

I would disagree with the professor on whether or not there's a difference between being a legislator or a judge. The Catholic Church has no specific teaching that I'm aware of on either, but they have certainly never made a distinction that exempts judges, never, in any of their writings, anywhere. Article VI of the Constitution says this: "Every judge, every legislator, every public official must agree to this and take an oath to it, that the supreme law of the land in this country is the Constitution of the United States. Nothing can come before it. No pope, no religion, no personal belief of yours, no commitment that you have against war or whatever." And so they're similar.

The law today, we all know, is Roe against Wade. That was made my judges and it can be overturned by judges. To say that the rules that apply to legislators shouldn't apply to judges is, it seems to me, wrong.

Finally, Judge Scalia: Now, there's a Republican conservative, if there ever was one, on the bench. Judge Scalia dealt with this--tangentially, but he dealt with it--on the subject of the death penalty. He said judges, Catholic judges, may be bothered in their conscience in voting for the death penalty because the pope has said that it is evil. He said under those circumstances, the Catholic judge should resign. There is no question it's relevant. Everybody takes an oath to support the Constitution, including especially judges. So why not ask them: "Will you, Judge, apply a religious test to the Constitution? Will you start by saying, `I'm not going to support the Constitution if my pope tells me not to'?"

MR. RUSSERT: Talking of Judge Scalia, this is what he said at a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "In my view, the choice for the judge who believes the death penalty to be immoral is resignation rather than simply ignoring duly enacted constitutional laws and sabotaging the death penalty. He has, after all, taken an oath to apply those laws, and has been given no power to supplant them with rules of his own."

Do you agree with that, Professor?

PROF. KMIEC: I do agree with that. I think it's important, however, to step back a minute. We've got both teaching from the Constitution and we have teaching from the church. The governor says that the church has never spoken to this distinction between judges and legislators, and yet if you examine the church's teaching on this, everything is directed at lawmakers, at those who form policy, those who vote. And it's perfectly understandable why that's the case because there's a fundamental difference, as again the governor himself in previous writing has recognized, between lawmakers and politicians.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me just inject something here that might help frame the conversation because this is what the U.S. Conference of Bishops said in June of 2004...

PROF. KMIEC: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: ...in the middle of the presidential campaign. "The legal system as such can be said to cooperate in evil when it fails to protect the lives of those who have no protection except the law. In the United States of America, abortion on demand has been made a constitutional right by a decision of the Supreme Court. Failing to protect the lives of innocent and defenseless members of the human race is to sin against justice. Those who formulate law therefore have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good."

You couldn't read that as a Catholic that Roe vs. Wade is a sin against justice and you have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting that morally defective law. Would that be an obligation on a Catholic justice of the Supreme Court?

PROF. KMIEC: I don't believe the teaching of the church is directed at justices in that respect. I think it is direct--let's again remember what the Constitution provides. The same constitutional provision that the governor references that requires an oath to it also says that there shall be no religious test for public service. Let's remember the remarkable thing that the founders did. They created a country based upon a moral supposition that we are created equal, that we are created, that we have unalienable rights, including the right to life. And at the same time, they guaranteed freedom of religion, perfect freedom of religion, and they said no one is going to be required to take a test oath on the basis of faith in order to serve. And they said fundamentally that in this republic we're going to be our own governors.

There's been a confusion in the land as to what the role of the court is. And one of the great things about John Roberts and his nomination is that from the beginning he has made it plain, and through his entire professional career he has made it plain, that he is to judge cases or controversies that come before him, specific cases, that he's not forming policy. Now, we all know that the Supreme Court in Roe vs. Wade and in other cases go beyond the text of the Constitution. When they do that, they're in very treacherous and very dangerous territory. We know the history of this.

When Roger Taney went beyond the text of the Constitution, he declared black men and women not to have natural rights. Abraham Lincoln when he came to that proposition said, "You know, I accept the ruling of Dred Scott for the parties in that case, but I don't accept it as a political rule as the law of the land." As a result, I think the injunction of the church and the injunction of our Constitution is to our executives and to our legislative branch to correct the errors that occur and the fact of the matter is is that the Supreme Court justices are to decide cases or controversies and not to legislate from the bench.

MR. CUOMO: Let's try to make religion constructive here if we can. I couldn't disagree more fully with the professor if I worked at it. First of all, this is not a religious test. What Article VI talks about is a religious test. You should not--every official, including judges and legislators, must take an oath to make the Constitution the supreme law. It goes on to say, "But there should be no religious test of his or her qualification to be a judge or a legislator." That is there should be no requirement that they profess a religious belief or deny a religious belief in order to qualify.

For example, a famous case is Torcaso against Watkins. He wanted to be a notary public in Maryland. They said to be a notary public, you have to say you believe in God. That is a religious test. That's no good. You cannot make a person profess religion. Or in Tennessee in 1978, they said clergy cannot be public officials. That was a religious test. If you're religious, you can't be a public official.

Here, ironically, if you want to say religious test, the question for Judge Roberts is, "Are you going to impose a religious test on the Constitution? Are you going to say that because the pope says this or the church says that, you will do it no matter what? You will overturn Roe against Wade." And to say Roe against Wade, to say that the church doesn't intend to cover judges, tell me why, Tim, the bishops, with all the words they used in June of 2005 discussing lawmakers, if they wanted to say legislators and not judges, here's how they'd say it, "legislators and not judges." When Scalia spoke, they would have made it clear we're now talking about judges. They have never done that. The principles are the same.

Now, practically and trying to be constructive, the question has to be answered. What you're really saying to the judge is, "Look, judge, just tell us whether there's anything about you, your religion or anything else, that will make you defy your oath to put the Constitution first." His answer is clear. He can only say one thing. "No. There is nothing." "Not even your religion?" "Not even my religion." OK. The reason they're trying to duck that issue is that then gets them into trouble with all those conservative Republicans, politicians and clerics who have attacked Democrats like Kennedy, like Ted Kennedy, like Gerry Ferraro, like John Kerry in the last campaign and said, "Oh, if you're religious," you know, "then you've got to do what the church says or you're a hypocrite." If Judge Roberts puts himself into that position, then the shoe is on the other foot politically.

To further complicate it from their side, there are Republicans, like Tom Coburn from Oklahoma, who are saying religion is a subject we should be asked about, and he did ask Judge Roberts about it. So I think very respectfully, of course we must get this question answered. I think I know what his answer is going to be, and I think then they'll have a political problem, but that's too bad. They started it. We didn't.

MR. RUSSERT: Professor, many Catholic politicians are faced with the following prospect, that individual bishops in different dioceses can refuse them Communion if they are seen as proponents of abortion. If, in fact, as you said, the Supreme Court in effect formulated the law in Roe vs. Wade, if a Catholic justice of the Court doesn't take assertive steps to undo that law, could they be denied Communion in respective dioceses and is that an appropriate pressure from the Catholic church?

PROF. KMIEC: Well, as you know, the church has looked at this question because it came up in the last election, and the statements of the church are to the effect that individual bishops shall address this question. And that, I think, Cardinal McCarrick here in Washington said it the best. This is a question of pastoral counseling. It's not something that really should be dealt with at the Communion rail. The canon law teaching, Tim, is that if you are living a life of manifest, grave, evil and sin, your pastor, your counselor should take you aside and address the fact that you're living a hypocritical life. The sacraments shouldn't be used as a weapon--as a political weapon.

But again, the Supreme Court of the United States really needs to examine the question as a matter of law as to whether or not any issue has been properly decided not as a matter of Catholic faith, not as a matter of secular humanism, not as a matter of any other personal philosophy. It's a question of whether abortion or any other topic that comes before it can be found in the text and history and structure of the Constitution.

There's no conflict between John Roberts' faith and this constitutional system because this constitutional system is premised upon the dignity of the human person. And that--we created a constitution to advance human right and the human person not to subtract from it.

MR. RUSSERT: Governor Cuomo, you brought up Justice Scalia on the death penalty. At that same forum, he talked about abortion, and this may surprise some people. This is what he said: "If a state were to permit abortion on demand, I would and could in good conscience vote against an attempt to invalidate that law ..." A state. "I have religious views on the subject, but they have nothing whatever to do with my job."

MR. CUOMO: Well, that was essentially the position I took in 1984. And I think it's a good position. Again, let's try being constructive and practical about this. He should answer the question, for the sake of clarity, for the sake of the system. Why? If people believe--especially as a Catholic now, I'm concerned. If people believe that there is a possibility that as a Catholic when you go on the bench or you go into the Congress or wherever as a public official, you would put your Catholic church teachings before the Constitution, then they will not know where you're going to be, because the Catholic church can come up with a teaching any day. They can change teachings, and they do.

It simply does not work in this democratic system to say, "Look, I'm going to be a judge or a legislator, but I want you to know, my conscience comes first and contraceptives, divorce, war, stem cells, abortion, if my church gives me a clear ruling, that's what I must do." That would end our influence in the United States of America politically.

PROF. KMIEC: But there's a fundamental difference...

MR. CUOMO: If politicians were--they would be required to say that when they ran. They would be required to say, "That's what I believe." It is not necessary to say that. Let Roberts, Judge Roberts answer the question. Let him tell the truth. The professor says his position will be, "No, my religion will not influence me." Fine. That's clarified. Then you deal with those Republican conservatives who came after the Democrats when they come after you. But clear it up, as I tried to 20 years ago.

MR. RUSSERT: In that speech 20 years ago, and I believe you were at Notre Dame at that time, Professor, this is what Governor Cuomo said: "I protect my right to be a Catholic by preserving your right to believe as a Jew, a Protestant or nonbeliever or as anything else you choose. We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might someday force theirs on us. ... I accept the church's teaching on abortion. Must I insist you do? By law? By denying you Medicaid funding? By a constitutional amendment? If so, which one?"

Is that, in your mind, acceptable for a Catholic layman who happens to be a governor, although--and would you also expect that of a Catholic judge?

PROF. KMIEC: I was there at that speech. It was eloquent. It was a wonderful presentation. The governor also said that he believed that life began at conception and that life should be respected and it didn't matter what five of nine Supreme Court justices said about it and that they disagreed with him. Notice what the governor did in that context. He did what the church asks him to do, to stand up as a witness of faith, to say that the dignity of the human person and the life of the human person should be protected. He fell a little bit short, with respect, about what the next step should be. He was in a position as the chief executive of the state of New York to urge policies that would protect life. He decided that he would refrain to some degree from doing that. He chose a set of policies to encourage bringing a child to term and at the same time did not encourage returning this issue to the political process.

Notice, Tim, there's a fundamental difference. When Catholic politicians bring their faith to the legislative branch, they're not imposing. They're sharing. If their view is going to be adopted, it's because the consent of the governed has decided to accept their view. When judges bring their faith, covertly or overtly, to the bench, they're not accountable politically. They're given independence only for one reason, because they promise--and here the governor and I completely agree--they promise to observe the text of the Constitution, its history, its structure and the traditions and the Declaration of Independence that undergirds it.

MR. RUSSERT: I gave Professor Kmiec the first word; I'll give you the last word.

MR. CUOMO: I regret that the professor was not aware of my political record after Notre Dame. But I worked very, very hard on an agenda. And let me--and let's--now, my final effort to be constructive here. What I said was: "Look, personally, I'm required to live my Catholic faith, and I will to the best of my ability." That's contraceptives, that's abortion, that's stem cells, that's all of it. My church teaches life begins at conception. It used to teach something else. Thomas Aquinas believed something else. Augustine believed something else. Now, it says it begins at conception. That is not a scientific conclusion. That's a religious conclusion. I will burden myself with it. I won't burden you with it.

On abortion, here's what we should do. Nobody in this country, Tim--and this is why Catholics are not trying to get a constitutional amendment and why no Republican president has asked for one. Nobody in this country wants to vote for an abortion law that's the same as the Catholic law, which is: "Even to protect the life of the mother, whether it's a rape, whether it's incest, no matter how horrible, there can never be an abortion, period." I don't--that has no chance of succeeding. That's why the church is not talking about it. That's why the Republicans are not talking about it. So we all believe, however, at the same time, there are too many abortions. There are too many times when a woman has to make this judgment.

Here's what I talked about for years and wrote about in The New York Times and elsewhere. I said, "Let's do this: Let's make sure that we give women the chance to avoid this terrible choice as much as possible, avoid unintended pregnancies. Let's teach our children to abstain. Don't laugh at that, because if you don't talk to them about abstention, they think you're encouraging them. Knowing that they may go beyond that into early sex, let's teach them about sex, if their parents will allow us to. Let's use contraceptives. I can't; I'm a Catholic, and that is still the law, although most Catholics don't observe it. But for those who want contraceptives, use contraceptives to reduce unintended pregnancies. If one happens anyway, then let that woman who thinks she can't handle the child--if she's poor, get her to term; provide an adoption. And then after you provide an adoption, take care of that baby for the rest of its life and do that as a commitment." Now that's a positive agenda. That can be done, even while you're railing against the abortion.

Another very practical suggestion I made; I think it's important on stem cells, too. The president says life begins at conception. Is that a scientific conclusion? No. His science advisor, John Marburger, says that's a sacred issue, not a scientific one. Let's make it a scientific question. Give it to a task force on life and law like the one we created in New York state, with doctors, with experts, with ethicists, to decide: What does human life mean? It means consciousness. When does that occur? When does viability occur? Roe against Wade says 24 weeks, but that's old, old medical evidence. 1973 is the decision; evidence was from 1950. Why don't you measure that again? If viability is now, let's say, 20 weeks instead of 24, that's a lot of abortions that will be stopped because, as we all know, once it's viable, then you can only have an abortion to save the life of the mother.

So there are a lot of positive things we should do. That's what we should do as Catholics. And one last thing: To teach people your Catholicism, you have to be--you have to avoid hypocrisy. We have abortions at the same rate as everybody else. We use contraceptives, I'm sure, to an embarrassing extent. It's very hard to say to the people of this world, "Here, country, this is the rule for you," when we don't live up to it ourselves. So let's start by showing, through our example and through positive evidences of our love, which is the Christian belief and the Catholic belief. That's what we should be doing constructively. That's what I always tried to do. And I'm sorry the professor missed it.

MR. RUSSERT: To be continued. Governor Mario Cuomo, Professor Kmiec, thank you very much.

Coming next, autism: what we know and what we don't know. Dr. Harvey Fineberg of the Institute of Medicine and David Kirby, author of "Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy," next, right here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: The controversy over childhood vaccines and autism, after this brief station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back.

Dr. Fineberg, Mr. Kirby, welcome both.

In your book, Mr. Kirby, you raise early on two questions. "Why did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allow mercury exposures from childhood vaccines to more than double between 1988 and 1992 without bothering to calculate cumulative totals and their potential risks?" And "Why ... was there a corresponding spike in reported cases of autism spectrum disorders? Why did autism grow from a relatively rare incidence of 1 in every 10,000 births in the 1980s to 1 in 500 in the late 1990s? Why did it continue to increase 1 in 250 in 2000 and then 1 in 166 today?" Have you answered those questions?

MR. DAVID KIRBY: No, nobody's answered those questions. And we have to answer those questions as soon as possible. We need to solve this mystery. We need to get this controversy behind us so we can go on to find ways to help these kids. Mercury is toxic. It's a known neurotoxin. If it gets into the brain, it could stay there virtually forever. Children born in the '90s received mercury far in excess of federal safety limits. That's indisputable. And yet we're looking at a neurotoxin. And yet most of the evidence developed by the public health sector has been looking at the epidemiology. And we really need to look at what this mercury is doing inside the bodies and brains of these children if we're going to solve this mystery one way or the other.

MR. RUSSERT: Dr. Fineberg, in your 2004 report from the Institute of Medicine, you said this: "While some information suggests that autism rates may be rising, it is not clear whether the observed increase is real or due to factors such as heightened awareness of the disorder or the use of a broader diagnostic definition. ..."

Do you think there's an epidemic of autism or do you think it's simply a change in defining it?

DR. HARVEY FINEBERG: There's definitely a huge number of cases diagnosed with autism, Tim. What is clear is that number recognized has increased dramatically. It's also clear that the definition was broadened markedly in the 1980s and 1990s, and there were increased incentives to recognize children from increased awareness and availability of services. No one knows with certainty what part of the increase is genuine, a genuine increase in numbers, and what part is from increased recognition of people who were already there but not previously recognized. Remember we're talking about a spectrum of diagnoses here, autism spectrum diseases, which range in severity from relatively mild to relatively severe.

MR. RUSSERT: For a layman, in a few words, how would you explain autism?

DR. FINEBERG: Autism is a severe neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterized by social withdrawal, by repetitive behaviors and by some kind of focal attention in its classic form. Basically, it's an inability to relate to others.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me go back and review two of the studies that the Institute of Medicine did because this has helped feed much of this controversy and discussion. Back in 2001, the headline on your press release was "Link Between Neurodevelopmental Disorders And Thimerosal Remains Unclear. Current scientific evidence neither proves nor disproves a link between the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal and neurodevelopmental disorders in children, says a new report from the Institute of Medicine... While very few vaccines given to children in the United States today still contain thimerosal, prudence dictates that precautionary measures be taken to decrease thimerosal exposure even further. ... It is medically plausible that some children's risk of a neurodevelopmental disorder could rise in part through increased mercury exposure from thimerosal-containing vaccines."

Thimerosal being a preservative that is put into the vaccine. Then about three years later in May of 2004, the Institute of Medicine issued this headline: "MMR Vaccine And Thimerosal-Containing Vaccines Are Not Associated With Autism, IOM Report Says. Based on a thorough review of clinical and epidemiological studies"--I'll always destroy that word--"neither the mercury-based vaccine preservative thimerosal nor the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine are associated with autism, says a new report from the Institute of Medicine..."

What changed in those three years?

DR. FINEBERG: When you're dealing with a problem as complex as autism, Tim, you have to look at it from many different points of view and assemble evidence from many different vantage points. Biological evidence in humans and in animals, toxicologic evidence, how does the body deal with toxins, and evidence looking at the actual experience in populations. When the 2001 report was written, there was a lot of suggestive information about the toxic properties of mercury and the problem of autism incompletely understood. By 2004, the main change was that there were completed additional studies that were actually looking in the population at the relationship of receipt of vaccines containing thimerosal and the development of autism.

These studies were carried out in the United States, in Great Britain, in Denmark and Sweden. These studies covered hundreds of thousands of individuals, children, in these populations. They compared systematically in different ways whether you received vaccine with no thimerosal, with some thimerosal, with more thimerosal, and they looked at the relationship of those experiences with the development of autism. Uniformly, the best of those studies all show no association between receiving vaccine of different amounts with thimerosal or without and the development of autism. It was the absence of that association which was the main reason for reaching the conclusion that the evidence points to no association between vaccines and autism.

MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Kirby?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I think those five epidemiological studies range from severely flawed to seriously questionable. And I also think that you cannot rely solely on epidemiology to prove or disprove causation. In fact, I have right here--this is from the federal court system, but they ruled that epidemiology is not acceptable to prove there is no causal link between an adverse event and a pharmaceutical.

MR. RUSSERT: Explain that in layman's language.

MR. KIRBY: Well, it means that you really, like the doctor said, need to look at the kids as well as look at the large population studies. You need to look at the biology, the toxicology; you need to look at the cellular level. You need to look at immunology, and I would say that what the IOM did last year--I was at that meeting on February 9. Virtually half of the evidence against the theory, that was presented against the theory was epidemiological--I have the same problem as you. The other half supporting the theory was largely biological. And yet the committee gave a preponderance of evidence or emphasis to the epidemiological evidence and rather, I would say, gave short shrift to the biological evidence.

Dr. Fineberg has mentioned that there are 215 references in the report. I counted them up. By my count, it's roughly a 2:1 ratio, about 115 references for epidemiology, 60 references for biology, and of those, only seven were toxicological reports. Now, we're talking about a known neurotoxin, and there were no toxicologists on the committee, either. So I think even Dr. McCormick, the chairwoman of the committee, told me that there was definitely an emphasis on the epidemiology over the biological evidence.

MR. RUSSERT: When we announced this program, as you might expect, we heard from both sides who are very emotional and passionate about this. The National Autism Association, Dr. Fineberg, wrote a letter to us including this: "The five studies the Institute of Medicine based its conclusion upon are fatally flawed, have never been replicated and have ties to the CDC"--Center for Disease Control-- "(or foreign equivalent mandating vaccines in other countries) and/or the pharmaceutical industry. However, the Institute of Medicine chose to completely ignore the biological and clinical data supporting the link between thimerosal exposure and injuries to children conducted by independent appropriately- credentialed researchers."

DR. FINEBERG: Tim, the Institute of Medicine panel that came together represented a spectrum of experts who were asked to look at all of the evidence, and they did. They assessed the evidence that bears on the question. Some of it is biological, as I mentioned; some of it has to depend on what you actually find when you go out and look in the population. Is there or is there not an association? Keep in mind that there are many neurotoxins in the world. Dozens of natural and industrial substances have neurotoxic properties. When you're trying to assess a specific association, there are biological studies that are relevant, and there are epidemiological studies that are relevant. All of these studies are not equally valid. Some have more deficiencies and limitations than others.

The committee went through very carefully and assessed each of those studies representing its strengths and weaknesses. All of this is laid out in its report, which is available for download to anyone who wants it from the IOM Web site, www.iom.edu. And anyone can read for themselves how the committee evaluated critically and carefully all of this evidence.

When the letter you read states that these five studies were not replicated, I can't help but think that each one of them has been replicated four times. We have now a growing body of evidence, while imperfect, altogether convincing and all reaching the same conclusion, even though they vary in their methods and in their approaches. And that conclusion was no association between the receipt of vaccines containing thimerosal and the development of autism.

MR. RUSSERT: Why was thimerosal then taken out of the vaccination?

DR. FINEBERG: There's no question that mercury is a neurotoxin. And if there were ways, which there are, to protect vaccines without using mercury-containing substances, it was prudent to remove it, not because there was evidence that it caused autism or even definitive evidence that the amounts in those vaccines caused any neuro problems, but because it was an added measure of precaution that was sensible and correct. And I might add that the latest vaccines that contained any thimerosal as a preservative, with the exception of some flu vaccines, were completed in 2001 and outdated in 2003. So anyone watching this program, any parent can be confident that when they take their child to the pediatrician to be immunized this year, they will receive vaccines without thimerosal as a preservative.

MR. RUSSERT: But prior to this year, there may be some concern?

DR. FINEBERG: Prior to 2003, there were some that still had thimerosal, but the concern is not reaching the level of evidence related to the development of autism. The concern is a more general concern about mercury as a potential neurotoxin.

MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Kirby?

MR. KIRBY: Well, if I could get back to the IOM report, that meeting was held 14--or the report was actually issued 14 months ago. This story is moving very, very fast. In those last 14 months, there has been an equally growing body of evidence, again on the biological side, that would suggest that, in a small subset of children with a certain genetic predisposition, they are unable to properly process the mercury that they were exposed to. And, by the way, the rates of exposure were quite high in the 1990s. At two months of age, children got three shots for a total of 62.5 micrograms of mercury. For their body weight, that's 125 times over the EPA level. For me to reach that level, that would be about 1,125 micrograms.

We know that certain children with autism, again, seem to have higher levels of mercury accumulating in their body. We know that when we give mercury to infant primates, the--there's two types of organic mercury: ethylmercury in vaccines, methylmercury in fish. What they found was that the ethylmercury, once it got into the brain, it converted to inorganic mercury very, very quickly. Inorganic mercury basically gets trapped in the brain, and there's evidence to suggest that, in an infant brain, in the first six months to a year when the brain is still growing, when inorganic mercury gets trapped in that brain, you're going to have this hyper neuroinflammation, or the rapid brain growth that we see in autistic children.

These are the types of things that I think need to be researched further. Yes, we need to look at the epidemiology. There's a whole lot of new biology. This has all been published. None of the biology was published at the time of the IOM hearing. It has since been published, and I actually wonder if the IOM would consider reconvening a new committee or a new hearing to consider the evidence that's come out in the year and a half since the last report.

MR. RUSSERT: Would you?

DR. FINEBERG: Tim, Mr. Kirby's description about the certitude of this evidence, I think, exceeds the actual balance of evidence that is produced when you look at the totality. It's true that mercury is handled differently in the body when it's in the form of so-called ethylmercury, which is in vaccines, and methylmercury, which was actually the form which was--on which the standards of exposure were based. That's the type found in fish, as has been mentioned. But when you look back at the studies of actual poisonings of children with large amounts of methylmercury and ethylmercury, most toxicologists believe that the ethyl form of the mercury is less toxic than the methyl form--less toxic to the nervous system. And that's based on many experiences with poisoning by these different forms of mercury.

MR. RUSSERT: Many parents have written us over the last couple of days saying that they have put their child in the process of chelation, which removes the mercury poisoning from the system, and they say they've seen vast improvement. Wouldn't that suggest that there may be some relationship between the mercury from thimerosal and the removal from the child?

DR. FINEBERG: Tim, autism is a complicated illness, and children with a variety of treatments and non-treatments show improvement over time, which is all to the good. But when you have a single story and a repeated story of an experience that a parent has with a treatment like chelation, you have to keep in mind that the history of medicine is strewn with discarded treatments that people at one time believed in very, very strongly. When you have one case after another, it's one anecdote after another, and the plural of anecdote in scientific terms is not evidence. The only way to know whether a treatment works or does not work compared to other things is to do the clinical trial, comparing those who are given the treatment in a systematic and balanced way with those who are not.

MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Kirby, in your book, you talk about a conference on June 7 to 8 in 2000 in Simpsonwood, Georgia. We've gotten many e-mails and letters about a government conspiracy, that the CDC and the FDA and the Institute of Medicine and everyone has gotten together and really tried to deny information to the parents of children with autism. Do you believe that?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I think the word "conspiracy" and "cover-up," those are very loaded words and I never use them. I do think there has been a lack of transparency and I would think Dr. Fineberg would probably agree with that statement. In this entire process...

MR. RUSSERT: Do you agree with that?

DR. FINEBERG: I don't agree that the lack of transparency has, had had any bearing on conclusions, and I'm not sure what we mean by a lack of transparency.

MR. RUSSERT: Right now many parents are seeking information from studies from the CDC through the Freedom of Information Act, and they're being told that the HMOs now have that information and they cannot share it because of privacy. And the parents are saying that's outrageous. It could easily be obtained by the CDC and disburse that science, that data so people can look at it and make their own judgments. Should the CDC at least do that?

DR. FINEBERG: In fact, Tim, the Institute of Medicine looked separately in a different study at this system that was in place and did urge the CDC to make these records more available to qualified researchers. But that is not the same as a lack of transparency in the studies or in the reports. All anyone has to do in the case of the Institute of Medicine report is to read the report. All of the logic is laid out, all of the weighing of considerations. Not everyone may agree with each assessment, but they have all the relevant evidence right before them.

MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Kirby, you have said, "I am totally willing to accept there are other factors at play. It may turn out not to be thimerosal at all." What do you think should be done?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I think, first of all, we need clinical trials for treatments. We need to try to help these children as best we can. There is a clinical trial of chelation therapy under way right now at the University of Arizona [editor's note: should be Arizona State University]. Dr. Fineberg said we need these trials. I wish the government was funding them. We need to listen to these parents as well. And I think that they've gotten a lot of dismissal from the scientific community. Parents were telling scientists that their children were born normally and then regressed. A lot of people dismissed that and said that couldn't be the case. We now know from a brand- new study from the University of Washington using videotapes of one-year birthday and two-year birthday that is indeed the case. If the parents were right about regression, maybe they're right about chelation.

Just getting back to transparency for one second if I could and this whole safety data base that we're trying to get access to from the report that Dr. Fineberg cited, it says right here, "The lack of transparency of some of the processes also affects the trust relationship between the NIP, the National Immunization Program, and the general public." The lack of trust and the lack of transparency is what's threatening the vaccine program, not talk about mercury. So the doctor's own committee said that there was a lack of transparency again inside this process of analyzing this data that was presented at that conference in Georgia.

MR. RUSSERT: Many of the National Autism Association and other groups, Doctor, point to Task Order 74. This is the arrangement between the CDC and the Institute of Medicine, a one-page memo which helps define the study and why it won't be released. Is there a reason?

DR. FINEBERG: I don't know what exactly that's referring to, Tim, but when the Centers for Disease Control contracts with the Institute of Medicine to undertake a study, they do pay the actual costs of the study. But keep in mind that the panel of experts that are assembled by the Institute of Medicine receive no compensation whatsoever for their volunteer service. And when a government agency conveys money to the Institute of Medicine, it's not the agency's money. It's the American people's money. And our obligation is to do the best we can to assess the evidence on behalf of the American public.

MR. RUSSERT: Since thimerosal is now out of the vaccine, latest as of '03, we will know in a few years whether or not there is a connection...

MR. KIRBY: Yes. That's correct.

MR. RUSSERT: ...definitively by the number of cases?

MR. KIRBY: I think so, but again we need to look at the biology, but the epidemiology is very important. If the case rates start to drop in the next couple years, I think that will be hugely significant. If I could also just get back to this commission by the CDC of the report, I'd like to do that as well.

MR. RUSSERT: Real fast.

MR. KIRBY: Well, there's evidence that there was pressure put on the committee by the CDC, and we have internal transcripts. I think that's what you were referring to. There are transcripts of private meetings. Some of them were leaked. They're not obtainable through the Freedom of Information Act. Many people are trying to get copies of the other transcripts, and I do hope that the IOM will make those available in the name of transparency in this.

MR. RUSSERT: Was there pressure?

DR. FINEBERG: Absolutely not, Tim. In fact, the whole reason why the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council exists is to be an independent voice outside of government to work on behalf of the needs of the American people. That's what we do. Agencies do not always hear from us what they want to hear. Sometimes the evidence does not point in a direction that is welcome. Stem cell guidelines or information about climate change or, for example, the ways to fix the Hubble Telescope which came out of the national academies--all of these are studies undertaken on behalf of the American public and the same was true for our assessment of vaccine safety.

MR. RUSSERT: You're absolutely convinced there's no connection between thimerosal and autism?

DR. FINEBERG: I'm convinced that the best evidence all points to the lack of an association. These studies can never prove to the point of absolute certainty an absence of an association. But I would say this, other avenues of research looking at other possible causes today are much more promising ways to spend our precious resources.

MR. RUSSERT: And our viewers should know that there is no thimerosal now in vaccinations, other than flu vaccinations, and so it's safe for your children to do --(Unintelligble).

DR. FINEBERG: And even some flu vaccines for children are now available without thimerosal, as well.

MR. RUSSERT: You believe there is a possibility of a connection?

MR. KIRBY: Absolutely. And I think one day we'll find out that there might have been--this has contributed to some of the cases in autism in this country.

MR. RUSSERT: Thank you for a very civil discussion. To be continued. We'll be right back.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back.

Forty years ago, August 6, 1965, Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act. One year later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. appeared on MEET THE PRESS and talked about that very legislation.

(Videotape, August 21, 1966):

MR. ROWLAND EVANS (Publishers Newspaper Syndicate): You said recently that the "extravagant promises" made a year ago in connection with the Voting Rights bill, have now become a shattered mockery. What exactly did you mean by that, Dr. King?

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (SCLC): Well, I mean that this Voting Rights bill came into being to end not only discrimination in its overt expressions and voter registration but also to remove the atmosphere for intimidation, for economic reprisals and for the creation of fear that cause people not to vote. And one of the things we have found is that when you have federal registrars in communities, many more Negroes go out to register because they see a different atmosphere and they are not overarched or undergirded with the fear of intimidation and economic reprisals as much as they do in dealing with some of the local registrars that they have dealt with so long.

Now, the problem is that after that bill came into being, very few registrars were sent into the South; I mean, federal registrars, and even today, all too few have been sent, and this is even true in some communities where we know that there are outright patterns of discrimination.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Yesterday, thousands marched in Atlanta, Georgia, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and to urge the re-authorization of some of its expiring provisions.

We'll be right back.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: For much more information on today's discussion on autism and our guests--you can find many helpful links on Viewer Resources page of our Web site, mtp.msnbc.com. Viewer Resources.

That's all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.

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