It is with great sadness we tell you that Evanston mom Elizabeth Birt died in a car accident late last year while vacationing in Colorado.
Birt, 49, the mother of Andrew, Matthew and Sarah was also a tireless advocate for autistic children, who elevated the level of medical debate about the disease across the country.
We featured Birt in the article "Mercury in Kids’ Vaccines," which ran in our August 2005 edition.
In 1996, Birt’s son, Matthew, was diagnosed with autism and whatever her personal and family struggles were, Birt also kicked into action.
In the past 10 years, Birt founded the Coalition for SafeMinds (Sensible Action for Ending Mercury-Induced Neurological Disorders), Medical Interventions for Autism and the National Autism Association. She also started the Xtreme Sports Camp, to give autistic children a chance to participate in sports rarely open to them by other means.
Birt was an attorney with a private practice in Wilmette. But it was her fight for Matthew and autistic children which frequently put her center stage in Washington, D.C. She fought to get mercury out of vaccines, something she believed was a primary cause of her son’s autism. Her efforts were chronicled in David Kirby’s book Evidence of Harm, released in April 2005.
It is a daunting time. The safety, health and education of our children are no longer local issues, they are global concerns. The dangers that face us, and our kids, can seem overwhelming. So, it is easier than ever to give up on change without even starting.
But Birt shows us that one person can make a difference just by asking questions.
The safety of vaccines is a long-standing controversy—one of the debates centers around whether or not the mercury-based preservative, thimerosal, used in many vaccines, causes autism. Many in the medical community say no scientific link has yet been proven. Advocates say that does not negate the link. Rather, it points to the need for more research.
When Birt first heard about the connection between autism and thimerosal, she knew nothing about it. She read everything she could find, requested government documents, studies and became convinced thimerosal was the cause of Matthew’s autism.
Armed with the information, Birt was not afraid to march into the middle of a political maelstrom and challenge the federal government, the public health systems, the medical communities and the pharmaceutical companies. She co-wrote a congressional staff report, "Mercury in Medicines—Taking Unnecessary Risks," published in the Congressional Record in 2003.
Birt fought hard. Not only did her hard work mirror that of an epic David vs. Goliath battle in D.C., but she also managed through her organizations to bring joy, hope and inpsiration to many families. She was generous with her time and compassion, often providing a shoulder to cry on for parents of newly diagnosed autistic children.
When Birt was interviewed by Chicago Parent, she proved a patient teacher, spending weeks on the phone and in person to explain the issues and history regarding mercury and its possible connection to autism and other childhood neurological disorders. She always found time to answer just one more question and the patience to muddle through a difficult topic with our reporter, our editors and fact checkers—many of whom were new to the topic.
Feisty and determined in her fight for autistic children, Birt was a divorced mother doing her best to raise three children—one of whom required much more effort than the average child. Yet, she still found the time and energy to become a leader in a fight she would rather not have been fighting.
She was a mom who, no matter how tired and discouraged she might be, still put one foot in front of the other each day to advocate for her son, Mathew. And as a result, so many others benefited. She is a role model for all of us and will be missed.
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