A single woman I know wanted a child. She had been married once, had nothing against being married again, but just did not see a likely candidate and was getting a bit old to believe in Prince Charming.

She considered all the alternatives--artificial insemination, an affair with a man she liked--but in the end she adopted a child from a Third World country. She said with so many unwanted babies in the world, it would be a sin not to take one of them.

I recognize that her solution is unacceptable to many, if not most, people who cannot have their own children. I recognize also as a father myself that there is a special kick in producing what we like to call our own kid--a kid linked by genes if not appearance and behavior to ourselves, our parents and all those who went before. There is continuity here--nice, neat and emotionally rewarding.

But I think of that woman often now. I think of her whenever one of those surrogate mothers appears on some television talk show or when the issue of who controls or owns (tell me the right term) a baby produced by a surrogate mother hits the courts.

Recently, there was a dispute about a deformed child whose mother was an alleged surrogate and whose father, it turned out, was not the man who artificially inseminated her. These cases are still relatively rare, but they are sure to increase as the practice of surrogate motherhood increases--as earnest and good people try somehow to produce a child that is in some way genetically like them.

They are not alone. Others attempt in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination. Some single women, desperate for a child and hearing the biological clock tick towards midnight, become pregnant by men they simply use for stud purposes. Sometimes these men know they are being used and sometimes they do not, but either way they become in no sense real fathers, just baby producers.

There is something sad and desperate about all this--something very understandable as well. And it behooves someone like me, whose fatherhood was attained in the conventional way, to tread lightly here. I would be lying if I did not admit that I get a certain joy in knowing that my son is like me in some ways and like his mother in some ways. Of course, he is like himself in most ways, proving that two and two sometimes add up to something more than four.

But having said that, and acknowledging that the rich should not tell the poor how to live, it is nevertheless a fact that the world is awash in unwanted babies, some of them in this country. The Third World is teeming with them. They are starving and dying by the millions--yes, the millions. In some countries, girl babies are abandoned simply because they are girls, while in others, more sexually liberated, children are abandoned regardless of sex. Sometimes, stark poverty is an equal-opportunity plight. To adopt an abandoned child is tantamount to saving a life.

But the energy and the efforts of this society are not being directed towards adoption. At home, couples seeking to adopt have to undergo what they see as humiliating scrutiny. And when they seek children from abroad, they have to undergo the same scrutiny and also fight the silly nationalism that sometimes presents either an obstacle or a barrier to adoption. The effort, instead, is directed towards producing babies that are either genetically like the father or the mother, sometimes by simply renting someone to take their place. This is medical science that has nothing to do with saving lives.

Until that woman I mentioned earlier adopted her child, I admit that I had not given the matter much thought. And until she laid out her choices in such stark terms--either save a life or bend over backwards to produce one--I had not thought that those were the alternatives.

I realize that this was one woman's solution and it is not for everyone. But it has been several years now since the adoption, and her child, once an abandoned girl, is as much her child as my child is mine. She gave herself a child. And she gave that child a better life--and maybe life itself.