In a recent D.C. court case, the estate of an unborn fetus was awarded damages totaling $75,000.

The federal government is willing to pay $30,000 a year to provide dialysis treatment for a kidney patient, but refuses to pay $70,000 for a heart transplant.

And an economic index used by the government for health planning puts the "value" of a 34-year-old white man at $328,475 and an 85-year-old black woman as $236.

How is it, in a society where life is supposedly priceless, that the courts and government have come regularly and routinely to place price tags on human life, particularly price tags that very so enormously?

In part, the answer is that there really is no choice. Judges and juries have to make those decisions in everything from airline crashes to nightclub fires. In the case of government, as a federal economist has put it, "whenever public spending decisions are made, values are implicitly attached to like," whether it be for public health or highway safety appropriations.

And, as the same economist, Dorothy P. Rice, said in one study:

"Attaching a dollar figure to death -- that is, determining how much a life is worth -- is an emotion-laden issue."

How, then, is it done?

Essentially, economists calculate the earnings that a person can expect to collect over a lifetime, based on normal life expectancy as well as sex and race. The earnings figures, which in this case do not attempt to take into account such variables as education and type of job, typically are available through the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Labor. Since many women are full-time homemakers who don't have a salary, economists traditionally have factored into the earnings chart a "value" for housewives' sevices. Without that added value, the price tag for women would be even lower than it is.

Economists also determine the pattern of earnings for a person from birth to old age. They plot the point in midlife when a person's maximum earnings are still ahead. For a white man, for example, that tends to be around the ages of 30 to 34; for a woman, 20 to 24. Then, working backward from that point, the economists assign a present-day value to the lifetime earnings for the very young who, like a botle of newly made wine, haven't reached their prime. Finally, working forward from the midlife point, the economists take into account the gradual decline in earnings as the person ages.

The result of all that is a chart, such as the one accompanying this article.

Critics say such charts are discriminatory because they imply that men are more valuable then women, whites more valuable than blacks and the middle-aged more valuable than the very young and the very old.

But the earnings approach, which dates to 1915, still is the most common formal method used by economists to compute the value of life. And despite complaints about its shortcomings, it is regarded by economists like Rice as the only method that yields consistent, reliable numbers.

There is one other way that value is sometimes attached to life for statistical or legal reasons. It is called "willingness to pay," and it reflects how much a person or an institution will spend to combat accident, illness or death. For example, a sick person may be willing to pay $25 for a doctor's help but not $50. And an institution may be willing to spend $10,000 to install a safety device but not $100,000.

It was the life earnings calculation that formed the basis for the decision in the case of the fetus. And it was the earnings index that represents the chasm between the assigned value of the 34-year-old white man and the elderly black woman.

Economist Rice, an author of this index and director of the National Center for Health Statistics, said the first time she gave a paper discussing an earnings chart, "a well-known doctor on the panel with me was horrified. He said a life is a life is a life and how dare you put a value on it.

"But I really feel that if you understand how to use these numbers, there is no problem in using them."

There are times, however, when the index isn't appropriate, Rice said. "When you are talking about a program to save a child's life . . . and compare that program to one that would save an adult, obviously the one for the adult would come out most favorably [on the earnings index].

"For such comparisons, you should pay attention to other measures -- you must be careful how you apply those numbers."

She said, however, that the index can be "an excellent tool" for comparing programs affecting similar age groups.

As for "willingness to pay," the other main method of determining the value of life, it is at the heart of the federal government's decision, so far, to pay for kidney dialysis. The goverment also paid for heart transplants during one eight-month period. But last year officials stopped funding the transplant program because, in their opinion, it was experimental and therefore not eligible for federal funding. Now there is some concern that the dialysis program also may be affected by the administration's efforts to trim federal spending, but no official decision has been made.

Willingness to pay is also at the center of an ongoing battle between business and regulators over cost and benefits of an array of pollution, health and safety rules.

One of the most revealing of those disputes is the cotton dust case now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

On one side is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which wrote standards to limit cotton dust exposure in mills and thus limit the risk of a serious lung illness, byssinosis or brown lung.

On the other side is the textile industry, which opposes those standards as expensive far beyond their supposed benefits.

OSHA says that, without the standards (which it says would cost $655 million to implement), 83,760 workers would get byssinosis. That translates to $8,000 per case avoided.

But the industry estimates that fewer than 8,000 would develop brown lung without the standards and that the cost to conform would be $1.1 billion. That works out to more than $100,000 per case avoided.

So it is now up to the court to decide whose figures are right and then whether the price tag derived from them is a reasonable estimate of the value of human life.