THIS MAY COME as a shock to people under 35, but it once was unimaginable that babies could be conceived in laboratories - or that it was worth the effort or potential ethical dilemmas to try.

Then the first "test-tube baby," born in 1978, ushered in a new branch of medicine. With it came a new era of moral dilemmas: surrogate motherhood, post-menopausal pregnancies, and just recently, the case of the "octo-mom."

These are not frivolous issues, but we would bet that the parents of the 550,000 children born through in vitro fertilization are glad that the research into infertility went forward even though its success was not guaranteed.

Though it wasn't intentional, like so much scientific research, the advances that made possible in vitro fertilization have pointed the way to new possibilities for treating a host of devastating illnesses and injuries - embryonic stem-cell research. And President Obama Monday removed barriers for the nation's scientists to follow that path wherever it leads.

Obama signed an executive order allowing federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells created in fertility clinics that otherwise would be discarded. Stem cells have the potential to be used in treating Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, juvenile diabetes or spinal-cord injuries.

Obama's action reversed an order by President George W. Bush, backed up by a veto in 2006, that blocked federal funding for research into stem-cell lines created after his August 2001, announcement. It also rightfully restores the division between science and religion.

Obama ordered the National Institutes of Health to create rigorous standards for the research within 120 days. That will allow stem-cell researchers to compete for $8.8 billion in funding set aside in the recently passed stimulus bill. In addition, labs will no longer be forced to duplicate equipment and personnel to divide privately funded research from research that was banned from receiving federal money.

Advances in the use of adult stem cells over the past few years only add to the promise of answers to devastating medical problems, since freedom to use cells from both sources will almost certainly speed the pace of discovery.

Some conservatives have tried to exaggerate the controversy of Obama's action with rhetoric that equates stem cells with fetuses and the research with abortion, and predicts "embryo farms" for the creation of extra body parts.

But a national consensus - including many who consider themselves "pro life"- has developed for government support, with safeguards, for following the science where it leads.

It may not matter to those who oppose the research on religious grounds, but there is a difference between an embryo created in the traditional way and its petri dish counterpart, a six-day-old blastocyst created in a laboratory.

An embryo might, if undisturbed, grow into a baby (that's not a certainty: scientists say only about a third of fertilized eggs actually implant in the womb and result in a pregnancy). Left undisturbed, a blastocyst stored in a refrigerator will not grow into anything. In fact, most unused blastocysts are thrown away.

Obama's action is an important step, but it must be followed up with action in Congress that affirms the decision. Also left open is whether federal funds could be also be used to create blastocysts for research.

Obama's order returns the nation to what he called "the urgent work of giving substance to hope and answering those many bedside prayers." *