Full speed ahead

August 24, 2005

TO THE layman, it seems stunning, the speed with which science is finding new ways to tap the healing promise of stem cells. But for those sick or even dying from ailments that could be cured, technological advances can't come quickly enough.

It is this sense of urgency that Congress must keep in mind as it resumes debate next month on lifting restrictions imposed by President Bush now hobbling researchers dependent on federal funds.

A breakthrough at Harvard University that may one day lead to the creation of embryonic stem cells without destroying human embryos is thrilling. But the findings are too tentative and the practical application too far off to justify denying appeals for a more expansive federal research policy.

The approach overwhelmingly approved by the House is a sensitively crafted compromise that limits federal dollars to research using embryos left over from fertility treatments that would otherwise be destroyed. The legislation should be swiftly enacted.

And yet opponents of even that narrow alternative are seizing on the opening offered by the Harvard development to further roil an emotionally heated debate laden with political implications.

Mr. Bush, in particular, is no doubt eager to avoid having to follow through on his threat to veto the House bill if it wins Senate approval and lands on his desk. Many of his supporters share the view that embryonic destruction is the equivalent of abortion, but others rejoice at a cause for hope -- particularly those living with the reality of degenerative ailments or injuries.

That trade-off remains the essence of the choice: preserving and enhancing the quality of life for those already here at the expense of a tiny collection of cells with the potential to become human beings.

Perhaps a decade or so in the future, Harvard's research into reprogramming skin cells to behave like embryonic stem cells will negate the need for creating and then destroying embryos.

But science isn't there yet, and the one-third of Americans who potentially could benefit from stem-cell cures rightly expect Congress to focus on them.

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