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THE FIRST LADY SHOULD STAY HOME

The White House evidently is having second thoughts about the advisability of sending Hillary Rodham Clinton to an international women's conference in China.

That much seems clear from the announcement this week that the first lady will wait until the last minute to decide, then will defer to the wishes of the State Department and the National Security Council - both of which have serious reservations about her participation.It should be an easy decision. Other prominent Americans will still attend the Beijing conference starting Labor Day. But the first lady should stay home. It's the wrong time and place for such a conference, and her attendance would send the wrong signal.

It's the wrong place for a conference on women's rights because of China's long history of mandatory sterilization and abortion and its abominable record in other areas of human rights.

It's the wrong time because China has pushed relations between Beijing and Washington to a risky low point with its arrest of Chinese-American activist Harry Wu merely for trying to expose inhumane conditions in Chinese prisons.

Under these conditions, the first lady's presence in Beijing would give China's leaders the impression that Washington doesn't take seriously its mistreatment of Wu and its other offenses.

Indeed, a strong case could be made that the entire U.S. delegation should stay home - but that move is not being considered. That being the case, the United States would still be amply represented in Beijing without Hillary Clinton by such prominent and influential American women as U.N. ambassador Madeleine Albright, Bella Abzug and Geraldine Ferraro.

A higher-profile visitor is simply not necessary or appropriate. The first lady should stay home. There's no need to make a big point of it. Just don't go.