It could almost be the tragic punch line to a distasteful lawyer joke: "First, let's kill all the children." Regrettably, I'm not paraphrasing Shakespeare. Earlier this week, the British Medical Journal exposed a massive case of legal fraud that is endangering the lives of children around the world.

In 1998, the respected medical journal Lancet published a study by Andrew Wakefield that suggested a link between autism and childhood vaccination. The study got a great deal of mainstream attention, and touched off a popular backlash against vaccination. Celebrities Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy even secured a good deal of money and attention for the cause.

The problem is that the study was bunk. No other study has ever reproduced Wakefield's findings, and many more contradicted it. But once the idea that vaccines caused autism took hold in the popular culture, it couldn't be eradicated.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services now reports a resurgence of whooping cough, measles, mumps and other deadly childhood afflictions.

The medical community has disowned the study and stripped Wakefield of his doctor's license. But the British Medical Journal reported Wakefield was guilty of a lot more than bad science. Not only were Wakefield's conclusions made up out of whole cloth, he had been paid about $680,000 by Richard Barr, a lawyer looking for a "lawsuit test case."

As bad as this is, it's worth noting that the financial incentives for this kind of legal fraud are actually far greater in the U.S. than in Wakefield's native England.

Last year, the journal Health Affairs estimated that medical liability costs America $56 billion annually, or 2.4 percent of all health care spending in America. The Washington Examiner's David Freddoso calculated that if you could magically get rid of medical lawsuits, it would reduce the rate at which health care costs are increasing by almost half over the next six years.

Yet, tort reform was not included in Obamacare because Democrats are bought and paid for. The American Association for Justice -- formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America -- is the sixth largest political donor in the country over the past two decades.

Some state governments have even been actively employing trial lawyers in the hopes of winning lucrative judgments against private entities. (And by private entities, I mean "people who create jobs.")

To some extent, we all need to take responsibility for the damage done by romanticizing and encouraging trial lawyers. The crusading lawyer is one of our culture's most cherished myths. John Grisham has sold millions writing potboilers about lawyers who stop the skulduggery of greedy corporations.

Julia Roberts won an Oscar for her portrayal of Erin Brockovich, the tale of how a brassy attitude and some legal petitions saved a small town poisoned by a faceless corporation.

But the truth is more inconvenient than fiction. The California Cancer Registry has completed three studies showing that cancer rates in Hinckley, Calif., were completely normal, irrespective of Brockovich's multimillion-dollar lawsuit.

And something tells me that Hollywood is not about to make a movie about how a corrupt trial lawyer paid off a doctor to falsify a boring medical study that ended up killing some children. There's no courtroom drama in that.

Maybe there are some honest and even heroic trial lawyers out there, serving as legitimate checks on corporate excess. But there are far too many Richard Barrs in the legal profession who peddle false promises of remunerative "justice" even as some are willing to toy with the lives of children. They must be stopped.

Mark Hemingway is an editorial page staff writer for The Examiner. He can be reached at