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HOW LONG is the Bush administration going to jeopardize human lives by its misguided fear of the anti-abortion lobby and its refusal to allow research into medical benefits that can stem from a procedure allowed by law?

Recent testimony before a congressional subcommittee brought home again the folly of the Food and Drug Administration's ban on importation of the French abortion pill RU 486.

Poignant testimony from several victim's of Cushing Syndrome, a rare cancer, illustrated the potential benefits to be derived from further testing of the drug. The patients received treatment during a National Institutes of Health clinical trial.

However, NIH plans to expand the research were stymied because the institutes could not be assured they could get new supplies of RU 486, according to Rep. Ron Wyden, chairman of the House Small Business Subcommittee on Regulation.

The NIH's unease stems from the FDA's ban on the import of RU 486 for personal use. Wyden argued that the ban has dissuaded the French pharmaceutical firm Roussel Uclaf Co., as well as U.S. drug companies and researchers, from pursuing the testing that would be needed to gain approval here.

Given the signal sent by the FDA's stance, who can argue with that assessment? It is asking a lot of private researchers and drug companies -- apparently too much, unfortunately -- to pursue a product when the political climate seems such that it might be impossible to market it.

The FDA often allows small amounts of unproven drugs -- such as cancer treatments -- to be imported for personal use, but has barred RU 486 despite evidence of its benefits elsewhere and a lack of medical evidence arguing for the ban.

In fact, an American Medical Association policy-making panel earlier this year endorsed research on the drug because of its potential benefits to suffering patients. Beyond helping victims of Cushing's Syndrome, evidence indicates the drug also can be effective in treating breast cancer, glaucoma and fertility problems.

The ban on RU 486 calls to mind the Bush administration's similar disregard for the benefits to be derived from fetal tissue research. That research has shown promise in the treatment of Parkinson's disease, diabetes and other ailments.

But despite recommendations of an NIH advisory panel that found it morally acceptable to use fetal tissue from legal abortions in the treatment, the Bush administration has banned federal funding of such work.

This substitution of political judgments for ones made on medical and ethical grounds is stifling legitimate research and needlessly hampering the development of treatments that can help millions.

Views about abortion should not interfere with the medical community's ability to freely conduct scientific inquiry and save lives in what is supposed to be the world's most enlightened society. It is time for the Bush administration to face up to that.

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