The Corner

Biden and Developmental Disabilities

Joe Biden’s comment today, suggesting some contradiction between support for those born with developmental disabilities and opposition to embryo-destructive research is among his more appalling and insulting gaffes to date. As CBS reports it, Biden said:

I hear all this talk about how the Republicans are going to work in dealing with parents who have both the joy, because there’s joy to it as well, the joy and the difficulty of raising a child who has a developmental disability, who were born with a birth defect. Well guess what folks? If you care about it, why don’t you support stem cell research?

When asked whether this was an implicit reference to Sarah Palin’s son with Down syndrome, Biden’s press secretary put out this statement:

This is a clash of policies not a clash of personalities. We’ve heard not a dime’s worth of difference between the McCain-Palin ticket and the Bush Administration on medical breakthroughs that millions of parents and doctors believe could save lives and transform the quality of life for countless Americans.

Where to begin? First of all, the example Palin sets in how she and her family have welcomed her Down syndrome child points in precisely the opposite direction from Biden’s call for the destruction of human embryos for research: it points toward a society that treats every human life as deserving of protection and regard. It is the very reason to oppose embryo-destructive research. 

Second, while stem cell work, including embryonic stem cell research, can help in the study of human development in general, as a matter of basic science, the notion that it offers a path to the treatment of Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities is just not sound. The basic science (which at its edges could have some impact on the study of developmental disabilities) can be and has been pursued under the Bush administration’s stem cell policy, and even the most adamant advocates of the policies Biden has supported have not listed a cure for Down syndrome among the miracles they promise. Biden’s remark is indicative of the lack of seriousness with which some Democratic politicians treat the relevant science here: they don’t themselves think this is one avenue of cell biology that could offer important help in one range of potential biomedical advances but rather they see it as a kind of magic bullet and universal cure-all that allows them to be for curing all that ails the human race and accusing their opponents of being against it all, meanwhile paying no heed to ethical concerns.

Third, to the statement from Biden’s press secretary. I certainly think it would be nice if there were no daylight between McCain and Bush on stem cells, but in fact John McCain voted to overturn the president’s stem cell policy, just like Joe Biden did. Unlike Biden or Obama, though, he has been very eager to encourage new advances in cell biology that could well make the entire debate moot, by making available the benefits derived from embryonic stem cells but without the need for embryos, and so with no ethical concerns. McCain is well informed about these advances, and has suggested they could change the balance of moral goods involved in the stem cell debate. He wants a solution that could advance medical research without undermining our society’s commitment to human equality or dignity. Joe Biden seems just to want a political weapon, and seems not to know much about the subject.

The Obama campaign is now backing away from Biden’s insulting remark, and especially arguing that it has nothing to do with Sarah Palin (despite the obvious contextual evidence to the contrary). The Democrats have been hoping for a gaffe from a VP candidate, but this isn’t the gaffe, or the candidate, they had in mind.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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