ONE MEMBER of the Republican leadership in Washington is finally showing good sense about stem cell research. Majority leader Bill Frist's break with President Bush on the issue ought to encourage the Senate to approve the bill allowing federal support for the research without extraneous amendments.
The bill has already passed the House despite a lack of support by the leadership. Frist's strong support in a speech yesterday suggests that, when the Senate returns from its summer recess in September, he will assemble a bipartisan coalition to preempt a filibuster and move the bill to passage.
The bill would overturn Bush's 2001 prohibition on federal aid for most research on embryos that are the surplus products of in vitro fertilization. Bush insisted that the research be done on adult stem cells or on a few embryonic cell lines already reserved for scientists at the time of his announcement. Frist supported that view in 2001.
But, as Frist noted yesterday, neither the adult stem cells nor the embryonic cells tolerated by Bush have proved effective for research. Frist, a physician, realized that science demanded a change in his position.
As in vitro fertilization has become common, thousands of embryos are being stored at clinics, awaiting destruction. By any reasonable standard, these are not human beings, but because they contain the potential to become human, their use in research should be accompanied by rigorous ethical standards. The House bill would mandate that the National Institutes of Health issue research guidelines.
The bill would clear the Senate easily were it not for the prolife lobby. Frist, who does not want to run afoul of this group if he seeks the presidency, said yesterday, ''An embryo is nascent human life." His position is disingenuous. If surplus embryos are human beings, they deserve legal protection, but they are an aggregation of cells, not yet implanted in the womb.
Frist promises a thoughtful and serious debate. He should not allow senators to attach amendments that would prohibit more-controversial stem cell work -- for example, cloning of embryos from unfertilized eggs for research purposes. This issue requires a separate debate.
Most Americans support in vitro fertilization so couples can have children. If the couple approves, it is morally better that their surplus embryos be used for research than destroyed. ''Whether it's diabetes, Parkinson's disease, heart disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, or spinal cord injuries, stem cells offer hope for treatment that other lines of research cannot offer," Frist said. By changing his mind, Frist increases the prospect for great enhancements of human life.