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Though heart disease and cancer don't discriminate between the sexes, scientific research on how those diseases and others affect women is woefully inadequate.

Some lawmakers are trying to change that by requiring the National Institutes of Health to establish research projects on the health concerns of women. Their bill has passed Congress and is ready to be signed into law. But its supporters have run into an unlikely opponent - Dr. Bernadine Healy, the NIH's first female director.Insisting that her agency is aggressively pursuing research on women's health concerns, she has urged President Bush to veto the bill as unnecessary. Bush has already vowed to veto it because it would allow fetal-tissue research.

It would be tragic if either argument ended up further delaying research on women's health problems. The fetal-tissue question should be dealt with independently. Dr. Healy's claim of "aggressive" research does not hold up.

The General Accounting Office found in a study two years ago that although the NIH announced a policy in 1986 to encourage the inclusion of women in research, the institute provided no specifics until 1989 and didn't consistently apply the policy before 1990. The NIH had funded projects that studied men only, even though the research involved diseases affecting both sexes.

Indeed, in 1989 heart disease was the No. 1 killer of women, with cancer No. 2 and stroke ranking third. But it's the rising number of deaths caused by breast cancer that has given women's health its visibility over the past 25 years. The Breast Cancer Coalition says 46,000 women will die of the disease this year.

Proponents of the bill say research is the key to slowing breast cancer's death rate, but the NIH hasn't helped.

To its credit, the NIH established the National Women's Health Initiative last fall, the largest clinical trial in U.S. history. It is also seeking $45 million for research on ailments that afflict minorities.

Though these efforts are to be applauded, the danger remains that without legislation mandating study of women's health concerns these new programs could disappear and future ones never happen. That unhappy possibility should be eliminated - now.