July 17, 2005

THE WHITE House has suddenly become enthusiastic about Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett's proposal for resolving the ethical dilemma posed by embryonic stem cell research.

A scientist himself, the Western Maryland Republican has been trying since 2001 to convince President Bush that the potentially invaluable research is possible without destroying embryos, a practice that violates Mr. Bush's moral code and that of many religious conservatives.

Only recently, however, as Congress reached the verge of lifting Mr. Bush's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, did the White House become intrigued enough with Mr. Bartlett's proposal to help him draft a bill and suggest that $15 million in extra research funds be thrown in.

Now, the Bartlett proposal and other perhaps too-good-to-be-true alternatives threaten to derail Senate momentum for lifting the research restrictions, which the House approved in May by an overwhelming margin - including 50 Republican votes.

Senators should not allow themselves to be manipulated by this distraction. One-third of Americans are affected by diseases or injuries that may be treatable using the versatile embryonic stem cells. Judging from the lobbying pressure on Congress, they are not in a mood to pin their hopes on long shots, nor should they be expected to.

What's more, there is no corner of this debate that is free of ethical concerns.

The House-passed bill would allow federal research money to be spent on embryonic research using tissue left over from in vitro fertilization treatments. When stem cells are extracted, embryos are destroyed.

Mr. Bartlett proposes to imitate the process nature uses to create twins, extracting a stem cell or two from an embryo that continues to develop and - as the congressman envisions it, at least - is ultimately implanted in its mother to become a baby complete with its own genetic repair kit. Scientifically dubious at best, the notion hints at a horror show of unintended consequences.

Another approach calls for creating research embryos that lack some crucial part needed to develop into a human being. But production of what Sen. Tom Harkin called "Frankenstein-like things" hardly seems preferable to using embryos created through the in vitro process that would otherwise be discarded.

The only problem such alternatives might solve is political: getting the president off the hook for vetoing highly popular and much-needed legislation. The Senate shouldn't allow Mr. Bush to kill research with real potential while opting for pie in the sky.

Mr. Bartlett's plan might deserve a look, but only after Congress passes the far more promising measure approved by the House.

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