Chili's Cancels Autism Awareness Fundraiser After Pro-Vaccine Pressure

The ongoing national debate surrounding vaccines has swept into its morass an unlikely player this week: the restaurant chain Chili’s, which canceled a planned fundraiser for the National Autism Association after finding itself under pressure by pro-vaccine groups.

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The chain had announced plans to donate a portion of its Monday sales to the organization in honor of National Autism Awareness Month. But that prompted outcry on social media when critics pointed out the association’s controversial belief about vaccines. “The National Autism Association believes vaccinations can trigger or exacerbate autism in some, if not many, children, especially those who are genetically predisposed to immune, autoimmune or inflammatory conditions,” according to the association's website. The idea goes against that of the medical mainstream, which points to various studies to show there is no link between vaccinations and autism.

On Facebook, pro-vaccine groups called for a Chili’s boycott and flooded the company’s page with angry comments. “Supporting an organization that promotes anti vaccination is dangerous and irresponsible,” one woman wrote, with another noting, “What are you hoping for, a resurgence in polio? Find another organization or start your own foundation.”

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In response, Chili’s announced on Sunday that it was canceling the event, noting on its website and Facebook page, “While we remain committed to supporting the children and families affected by autism, we are canceling Monday's Give Back Event based on the feedback we heard from our guests.” The statement continues, “We believe autism awareness continues to be an important cause to our guests and team members, and we will find another way to support this worthy effort in the future with again our sole intention being to help families affected by autism.”

The National Autism Association could not be reached for comment by Yahoo Shine. On its Facebook page, however, a statement reads, “Thank you to all of our supporters, and thank you to Chili's for taking a chance on us. Though NAA has changed our mission and efforts in recent years to focus on autism safety, namely wandering prevention, controversial views about vaccines remained on our website. Because of guest feedback about these views, Chili's has opted to cancel today's event. We respect their decision and ask everyone to please speak words of love and kindness.”

The organization’s stance on vaccines, according to its website, is that the “NAA believes that every parent has the right to research and educate themselves about all medical products, including vaccinations. Informed consent is critical and each parent should have the freedom and information necessary to make the best decision for their child. NAA cannot make this decision for any parent, but we are happy to provide sources of information to anyone in need.” It then refers readers to the website of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), an oft-criticized non-profit clearinghouse that states as its mission, “the prevention of vaccine injuries and deaths through public education and to defending the informed consent ethic in medicine.”

Regarding the Chili's controversy, NVIC co-founder and president Barbara Loe Fisher tells Yahoo Shine, "It's unfortunate that somehow we've been thrown into this mix." She notes that her organization was the force behind Congress's passage of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, which "acknowledges that vaccine deaths are real," and adds that the purpose of the organization is to help people make informed choices. "We are not doctors," she says. "We are informed consumers."

Meanwhile, since the event’s cancellation, Chili’s Facebook page has been blowing up with critical comments. “Denying that vaccines cause harm and can kill a number of babies is like denying that peanuts can cause the death of some kids,” wrote one irate critic, while another blamed the “medical mafia” for “bullying” people into supporting vaccines. Another commenter, identifying herself as the mother of an autistic child who vaccinates her children, noted, “Autism exists whether or not we can all agree on a cause, and to take money away from an organization helping these children and their families is selfish and cruel.”

Still, a Chili’s spokesperson tells Yahoo Shine Monday that despite the new flood of comments, “I believe our statement is still what we’re going with.”

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