Marianne Williamson under fire over controversial health remarks

White House hopeful Marianne Williamson’s past controversial comments on health issues are coming under intense scrutiny from disability advocates who are worried that she is popularizing unproven stigmas.

Williamson, a bestselling self-help author, has shown unexpected strength in a crowded Democratic primary field, collecting more individual donors than established politicians like nine-term Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), or Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who announced she would drop out of the race last week.

{mosads}That has experts worried that her controversial health comments, including expressing concerns about mandatory vaccinations and appearing to link the use of anti-depressants to the suicides of some celebrities, will gain acceptance amid the attention being devoted to the 2020 race.

Rebecca Cokley, director of the Center for American Progress’s Disability Justice Initiative, called out Williamson for her “repeated use of inaccurate information,” citing her vaccination comments and “her ongoing dismissals of the reality of mental illness and chronic health conditions.”

“While she may have some reasonable and common sense ideas on key issues, there is a limit to how much ableist rhetoric that the American public can take. And her legacy will be setting that limit,” Cokley told the Hill about Williamson.

Williamson became known through her 13 books and from when she was Oprah Winfrey’s spiritual adviser.

But she has become more famous since entering the 2020 race, especially after her answers in the previous two primary debates — including warning about the “dark psychic force” of the Trump administration — have gone viral.

Williamson was the most-Googled candidate during the second debate on July 30, though she failed to qualify for the next Democratic debate next week.

The attention to Williamson’s comments have brought new scrutiny to her previous health comments. The Williamson campaign has defended them, telling The Hill in a statement that a lot of the criticism comes from “some people who made assumptions without talking to her or asking her about her health care or disability justice plan components.”

{mossecondads}“The facts are on Marianne Williamson’s side and as her campaign is gaining strength and support, those mischaracterizations will fall away,” her team said in a subsequent statement.

How she handles the rising scrutiny could be pivotal to her campaign, strategists warn, especially given that most Democratic candidates, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), have made health care reform a key part of their candidacies.

“She was coming across as a credible candidate but I think her comments about clinical depression and antidepressants are going to confirm the suspicions that many people had that she is just a sort of a New Age-y spiritual guru and not a serious candidate for president,” Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said.

Among the Williamson comments being scrutinized is one from June comparing mandatory vaccinations to the government banning abortions, a controversial subject at a time when the country has seen an outbreak of diseases like measles in part because of the opposition by some communities to vaccinations.

“To me, it’s no different than the abortion debate. The U.S. government doesn’t tell any citizen, in my book, what they have to do with their body or their child,” Williamson said at a New Hampshire campaign event in June.

Williamson also has come under scrutiny after appearing to agree in 2012 that there could be a link between vaccinations and autism on her show “Living Miraculously,” in a moment first uncovered by CNN’s KFile. The link has been debunked but continues to be held by those who oppose vaccinations. 

Williamson responded, “Yes, absolutely,” when her guest, author Gwen Olsen, said that she knew several people who were vaccinated and then diagnosed with autism.

A Williamson spokesperson denied at the time her response was an endorsement of a link between vaccinations and autism, telling CNN “it’s clear from Williamson’s comments that she was neutral.”

Esmé Grewal, vice president of government relations at the American Network of Community Options and Resources, called drawing a connection between vaccination and autism “really problematic.”

“There’s no benefit to society if we create fear around people with autism,” Grewal told The Hill. “People with disabilities have lowest employment and I think you can attribute much of that to the fact that people with disabilities are viewed in a certain light,” she added.

Williamson’s campaign told The Hill that both Williamson and her daughter are vaccinated and that the candidate supports mandatory measles vaccinations, though in the 2012 show uncovered by CNN’s KFile she acknowledged having “agonized” over whether to vaccinate her children.

“With every medical intervention there are both risks as well as benefits, but she’s been clear that public health must always come before issues of individual choice. A person can be pro-vaccination and still understand some of the skepticism that abounds today about drugs which are rushed to market by Big Pharma,” the campaign told The Hill.

Williamson’s comments appearing to link the use of antidepressants to the suicide of some celebrities have also come under scrutiny.

In 2018 she suggested antidepressants were to blame for designer Kate Spade’s suicide without presenting any evidence in a now-deleted tweet.

“How many public personalities on antidepressants have to hang themselves before the FDA does something, Big Pharma cops to what it knows, and the average person stops falling for this?” Williamson wrote on the day when news emerged about Spade’s death, referring to the Food and Drug Administration.

In a July interview with The New York Times, Williamson said she believes antidepressants are overprescribed as a consequence of “medicalization of normal human despair,” though that is a view that is also shared by some medical professionals.

Williamson’s campaign told The Hill that the candidate is simply “participating in a national conversation that raises questions regarding big pharma’s oversized influence on the review processes of the FDA.” 

“She stays in her lane as a faith leader and counselor and does not weigh in on the diagnosis of any individual regarding their medical or mental health condition,” the campaign added.

Some disability advocates are not convinced and worry that Williamson — and the scrutiny on her past comments — are spreading what they call harmful stereotypes, regardless of her intentions. 

“I’m really unconcerned what [Williamson’s] intention for backtracking is and am still alarmed for the harmful stereotypes she has had a hand in spreading in a country that already struggles to believe disabled people,” Imani Barbarin, a disability activist and founder of the blog Crutches & Spice, said. 

“Marianne Williamson’s ideas around disability and illness blame disabled people for their own treatment and then vilifies them for seeking medical intervention.” 

Tags 2020 Democrats Bernie Sanders Disabilities Health care Kirsten Gillibrand Marianne Williamson Oprah Winfrey Tim Ryan Vaccine
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