Celebrity Health: Jenny McCarthy’s Controversial Autism Charity Seems to Be Rebranding Away from Autism

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Celebrity Health: Jenny McCarthy’s Controversial Autism Charity Seems to Be Rebranding Away from Autism

Celebrity Health:

Celebrity Health: Jenny McCarthy speaks at a rally calling for “healthier vaccines” June 4, 2008 in Washington, DC.
Jenny McCarthy speaks at a rally calling for “healthier vaccines” June 4, 2008 in Washington, DC.
Photo: Getty Images

Generation Rescue, the charity whose public face and board president is actor Jenny McCarthy, and which promotes debunked and sometimes dangerous treatments for autistic children, seems to rebranding away from the subject of autism and towards a much more broad set of medical issues. Sometime in May, the Generation Rescue website was taken offline, replaced with a page that reads, simply, “Stay tuned for what’s next.”

Even before the site disappeared, there were signs that McCarthy and Generation Rescue hoped to retool the organization into a “functional medicine” nonprofit, rather than one focused on the controversial and non-scientific autism recovery claims they’ve made for years. The apparent rebrand feels almost Goop-esque, a way for McCarthy and the organization to enter a much broader and less clearly defined “wellness” space, where many more kinds of questionable pseudoscience are possible.

Generation Rescue was founded by a businessman named J.B. Handley, who, like McCarthy, claims that vaccines cause autism. (Both Handley and his wife Lisa, like McCarthy, have claimed that one of their three children developed autism after being vaccinated. Yet another enormous study published in March has thoroughly refuted the idea that vaccines cause autism.)

McCarthy teamed up with the Handleys soon after Generation Rescue was created and became its most public and enthusiastic booster. The organization, though, became infamous over the years for the discredited treatments and medical professionals it promoted on its website and at its yearly conferences. (These days, Handley is the director at Children’s Health Defense, a purported environment organization founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that makes a variety of claims about vaccines being unsafe.)

A Jezebel investigation in March found that over the years, several of the treatments and products recommended and sometimes sold by Generation Rescue were ones that its board members stood to directly profit from. We also found that the nonprofit’s past executive director, Candace McDonald, appeared to have been paid both a salary and at least $100,000 extra per year for three years in fees to her consulting firm. For at least two years the organization was also headquartered in her guesthouse, paying rent to her.

Yet there were signs during our reporting that Generation Rescue’s operations were, if not winding down, seeming to shift. A “grant program” that gave families a small financial stipend in order to guide them into GR-approved medical treatments and services — vitamin supplements, two visits with GR’s brand of medical experts, urine and stool analysis — was suspended. McDonald was replaced with Zack Peter, an aspiring podcasting star who’s in his mid-twenties and who has no apparent experience running a nonprofit, though he did previously work as an intern at GR. A yearly conference run by GR, the Autism Education Summit, didn’t happen last year. (At one point, Generation Rescue appears to have also had plans to build an “integrative health clinics” in Illinois and Missouri, plans that, by 2017, had ground to a halt.)

GR also appeared to be quietly taking steps away from describing itself as an organization primarily concerned with autism. On Facebook the organization’s bio still reads, “Generation Rescue is the leading national organization that provides hope, information and immediate treatment assistance to families affected by autism spectrum disorders.” But around April, the group’s Twitter bio changed: the descriptor no longer uses the word “autism” at all. Instead, it read “Leading national nonprofit dedicated to providing access to the latest research and solutions in functional medicine to raise healthy families.”

Finally, there was the Elevated Summit, which was held in May, and presented as a Generation Rescue event. McCarthy was a featured speaker, along with several alternative medical practitioners and self-proclaimed health experts who have been associated with the organization for years, often providing their own brand of advice about autism causes and treatments. On their website, the event was described as “an evolution of The Autism Education Summit – a three-day conference which was held for five consecutive years in Dallas, Texas with an average of 750 attendees, speakers and special guests.”

The website adds:

Formerly focused solely on providing information on the latest autism treatments, The Elevated Summit expands this focus by providing education and empowering individuals to take control of their health by providing them access to the most cutting edge treatments and therapies to heal the autoimmune spectrum.

A cynic would suggest that there’s more money in a broad and vague set of “cutting edge treatments and therapies to heal the autoimmune spectrum” than there is in focusing solely on autism. On their website, the Elevated Health Summit promised its sponsors and potential sponsors access to women aged 35-44 who are “sassy, savvy and health-conscious,” and who have “key buying power/influence.”

Celebrity Health: Illustration for article titled Jenny McCarthy's Controversial Autism Charity Seems to Be Rebranding Away from Autism
Screenshot: Elevated Summit

Zack Peter, Generation Rescue’s apparent current executive director, didn’t respond to Jezebel’s requests for comment during the reporting process on our first story. He later said on Twitter, “We don’t respond to fake news from biased journalists with a clear agenda,” followed by a laugh-crying emoji. When I lightly scolded him, Peter added that he believes in Generation Rescue “wholeheartedly,” which wasn’t really the question.

Celebrity Health: Illustration for article titled Jenny McCarthy's Controversial Autism Charity Seems to Be Rebranding Away from Autism

Besides the Elevated Summit, the only thing Generation Rescue has recently done is a celebrity poker tournament fundraiser, held back in March. The tournament took place at the Hotel Baker in St. Charles, Illinois, a hotel owned by Rowena Salas, a Generation Rescue board member. (St. Charles is one of the places where the stalled “integrative health” clinics were planned to be located.) The glittering stars reportedly included Donnie Wahlberg, McCarthy’s husband, as well as Vanderpump Rules star Lala Kent. The tournament was held for a “great cause,” per the invite, and while that’s surely true, there were no details publicly provided about where the money was going. Considering that the organization currently appears to be on some sort of hiatus, that’s still unclear.

Zack Peter didn’t respond to two requests for comment on this story. Neither did a public relations representative for McCarthy. We’ll update should we hear back from anyone connected with Generation Rescue, or whatever it’s planning to become.

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