11/08/2006 11:04 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Autism and the GOP - Why Parents Are Fed Up

Autism currently ravages 1-in-166 American children, meaning that 1-in-83 parents are also affected. Many of them, it's safe to say, will not be voting Republican.

Over the past six years, as the GOP wielded near total control over Washington, the autism parents I know have felt as welcome at the table as, say, Cindy Sheehan.

Thousands of moms and dads are convinced that environmental toxins - and mercury in particular -- played a pivotal role in their children's illness. But this idea has been very unpopular in George Bush's Washington.

Why? Just follow the money -- and follow the mercury.

Big Energy and Big Pharma are two of the GOP's most reliable cash cows. They also happen to be responsible for most of the mercury that ends up in our kids. And though the autism-mercury link has yet to be proven, Republican leaders really, really want the issue to just go away.

But those pesky parents won't let them. On Election Day, many of these highly motivated voters will repay the GOP for what they say has been six years of hostile indifference, at best.

After all, it was GOP leaders who inserted a secret rider into the Homeland Security Bill to dismiss lawsuits against companies that use mercury in vaccines. It was Bush Administration lawyers who tried to seal the records on all government data pertaining to the controversy, while also devising clever new ways to gut EPA regulations on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. And George Bush himself utterly reneged on his reelection campaign vow that all mercury should be removed from childhood vaccines ASAP (something to remember when getting little Johnny's flu shot this year).

Then came the Combating Autism Act, a sweeping (and long overdue) bill that made its painstaking way through the US Senate earlier this year. Careful consensus was crafted among all major autism groups to help create a nearly $1 billion bill which, among other things, would direct at least $45 million into NIH research on potential environmental causes of autism.

To his credit, Republican Senator Rick Santorum introduced the bill and worked to get it passed, but only with enormous pressure by autism parents and heavy hitters like Bob and Suzanne Wright of Autism Speaks, and environmental activist Deirdre Imus, (who was stunned to see a blubbering Bill Frist begging for deliverance from her relentless radio host husband, rather than worrying about the kids).

The bill passed unanimously in the Senate, only to get bottled up in the House, in the Committee on Energy and Commerce chaired by Rep. Joe Barton, of Texas. Barton had a bill of his own, to reform the way NIH gets and distributes research money. His bill passed the House, but is going nowhere in the Senate. Meanwhile, Barton refuses to let the autism bill out of his committee, despite the fact that it would pass overwhelmingly in the full House. Barton says he doesn't like "single-disease" funding bills, and promises to address autism in a new compromise version of his NIH legislation.

Barton says he is not opposed to funding for environmental autism research, but many parents can be excused for their skepticism: Among his top political contributors are electric utilities and pharmaceutical companies. A lot of money, a lot of mercury.

Barton may resubmit his bill - even if he is a lame duck Chairman - after Election Day. But it's a safe bet that his version won't contain any specific funding into environmental causes of autism. In the meantime, he is excoriated almost daily by Don Imus, whose colorful adjectives to describe the Chairman are gleefully repeated on autism blogs nationwide.

And now, at least 1-in-83 voters will have autism on their mind when heading to the polls. They will wonder why the Combating Autism Act has seemingly died in the House, and why leaders like Speaker Denny Hastert have done little, if anything, to save it.

I know many Republican parents who will be voting Democratic this year. It's not that the opposition party presents any great alternative. But, like with most Americans and Iraq, these fed up voters feel like any change will be a change for the better.

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