Dodging and weaving

August 11, 2005

PREDICTABLY, the federal standoff over updating President Bush's policy on embryonic stem-cell research has shifted the battle to the states, which - also predictably - are breaking down along philosophical lines with many of the usual religious and political overtones.

What complicates the picture in this debate, though, is that unlike, say, disputes over abortion or gay marriage, potentially enormous medical and economic benefits hang in the balance. And polls suggest most Americans, even in conservative states, favor pursuing this research.

That makes the controversy very tricky for politicians, particularly Republicans, who find themselves torn between religious-right forces leading the opposition and the business community eager for the profits the research promises to yield - not to mention the one-third of Americans suffering from degenerative ailments and injuries who are hoping for a cure.

Increasingly, GOP leaders are finding, as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist did recently, that they can't have it both ways.

Senator Frist's surprise declaration last month that he would support an embryonic stem-cell measure overwhelmingly approved by the House came too late for action before Congress' August recess, but the measure ought to be among the first orders of business when the lawmakers return in the fall.

Surely Mr. Frist, a heart transplant surgeon, can craft a compromise that allows Mr. Bush to avoid following through on a threatened veto that would be widely unpopular.

Dithering and delay only handicap America's biotech industry as scientists elsewhere in the world are moving ahead in this extremely complex and highly competitive field. And an outright ban on such research runs counter to overwhelming public opinion, leaving opponents to fight mostly a rear-guard action.

Even in a conservative swing state such as Missouri, opponents of research that destroys embryos have not been able to push a ban through the legislature, and the state's anti-abortion governor doesn't support it, either. Yet the controversy is discouraging investment in Missouri and other states where it arises.

Closer to home, lack of research funds is a big problem for Maryland, where scientists at Johns Hopkins were among the pioneers in the stem-cell field but have been stalled by restrictions President Bush imposed on the use of federal money four years ago.

Maryland lawmakers are trying to lure more private biotech concerns here by providing state grants for stem-cell research. But they were blocked this year by a small bipartisan band in the state Senate threatening to filibuster.

Either way, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who also came belatedly to the cause this year, should now take the lead in efforts to return Maryland to its former pre-eminence in stem-cell research.

It's good business, it's good politics, and it holds too much promise to wage an inevitably losing battle to stop.

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