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Putting limits on some kinds of genetic research has always been a bit like trying to regulate spam. Somehow those unwanted and often-offensive junk e-mail messages continue to invade our inboxes, despite a five-year-old federal law that was supposed to lead to punishment for the most egregious senders.

Linking such an irksome inconvenience to the far larger ethical issues raised by research that has the potential to alter the course of human development might seem perilously flippant. But the link is this: If the scientific and technological activities that concern us are occurring mostly overseas, the laws and regulations we impose in our country often have little impact.

The problem with spam is that much of it is flung by e-mail servers outside the reach of any authority in this country. Likewise, the genetic research that might be most troublesome to many Americans may take place in labs that are far beyond the bounds of U.S. law.

The same is also true of the most promising areas of genetic investigation. President Obama alluded to that in his announcement last week...