De Niro Reversal on Anti-Vaccination Film Hailed by Health Experts

Robert De Niro has reversed course and decided not to show the film "Vaxxed" at the Tribeca Film Festival. Above, De Niro attends The National Board of Review Gala in New York January 5. Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Bowing to enormous public pressure, Robert De Niro has yanked a controversial anti-vaccination film from his Tribeca Film Festival, while at the same time defending having what he'd hoped was a "conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family."

The film, Vaxxed, is the work of Andrew Wakefield, who immediately responded with cries of censorship. "We have just witnessed yet another example of the power of corporate interests censoring free speech, art, and truth," read a statement on the film's website from Wakefield and Producer Del Bigtree, who promised to find another way to reach the masses. "Tribeca's action will not succeed in denying the world access to the truth behind the film Vaxxed."

De Niro's decision was welcome news to Arthur Caplan, head of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University, who called the film "nonsense on stilts."

"It's a rehash of worries about autism, the scientific community basically had a justifiable conniption, including me," Caplan told Newsweek. "It's the equivalent of a Holocaust denial film. [Wakefield is a guy who's been adjudicated many times. Nobody believes it anymore. It's a settled issue. He's been disgraced."

Airing a film like Vaxxed would only threaten to revive fears among some parents, Caplan says, which even in small amounts could prove dangerous, if clusters of people around the country decided vaccines are dangerous. "If you get pockets of resistance, hesitancy, noncompliance, you can have outbreaks," Caplan said. "Eighty-five to 90 percent of people get their kids vaccinated, but vaccines aren't 100 percent effective, so if you get a lot of people in a town or area not vaccinating, you can still get a pretty bad outbreak. The real fear is if you stoke the concern back up, it runs wild on the Internet and then all of a sudden you've got communities that can incubate epidemics again."

Even though the once-flared debate over links between vaccines and autism has been roundly settled, a film like Vaxxed could be influential, Steve Silberman, author of the autism book Neurotribes, told Newsweek. "When a well-respected celebrity like Robert De Niro, who himself has an autistic child, appears to lend his own credibility to Andrew Wakefield's debunked nonsense, it has power," Silberman said. "Particularly in the parents community, parents will put their kids through potentially harmful treatments. It's very important that De Niro reconsidered."

The festival begins April 13 in Manhattan.