I can still remember when Sharron Whitley had the first baby. She was only 17, and those of us who were family friends and had watched her grow up with our own children shared her parents' hurt and dismay.

Sharron was not a child of the ghetto, but once she became a teen-age mother, her choices became as limited as those of any ghetto girl. She moved into a low-income neighborhood in which the daily poverty she saw was far different from the tree-lined streets where she had spent her formative years; she went on welfare to feed her son.

Fortunately, she still had some things going for her that many young women don't have: a strong family that loved and supported her. Both her parents are professionals here, and while I kept in touch with them, I saw the new young mother only rarely.

After the birth of her first child, I learned that Sharron and the child's father had parted company. At this point, of course, a stringent adherence to birth control would have been the path to take. Sharron later said she had tried several methods that apparently did not work. And before long, she was pregnant again. At age 20, and still unmarried, she gave birth to a second son.

At the urging of her parents, Sharron finished high school and even enrolled in nursing aide classes at the University of the District of Columbia. But with her incessant responsibilities, she seemed unable to turn her life around.

Nine months ago, when Sharron, now 22, learned she was again pregnant by a man she later described to me as her "fiance," she decided she'd had enough.

"I have to get off welfare, go back to school and make something of myself." Convinced that the contraceptive methods she had used in the past did not work for her, she made the difficult decision that was applauded by her parents as the most socially responsible one she'd made in her life: the third baby would be her last; she would also undergo sterilization via tubal ligation.

It's easy -- and correct -- to say she shouldn't have had three kids in the first place; that she shouldn't have gotten herself, or the children, into this hole. But at least she was ready to try to take a different path.

But last week, her plans went awry. When she entered Washington Hospital Center to give birth to her third child and to undergo the tubal ligation she had scheduled six weeks earlier, the hospital could not produce a doctor to perform the surgery.

"For three days they promised to do the procedure, but they kept finding excuses not to do it," she said, tearfully. "They said the delivery room was crowded. They told me I was low priority . . . . For the next two days, I was prepped for the {sterilization surgery}, but they said they didn't have a doctor who would do it. One doctor told me he did not perform the surgery on women under 30 because she might want to later reverse the procedure and some even threaten to sue; another one told me to 'stop having sex.' I told him to 'get real.' "

Since she was sent home without the tubal ligation, her parents fear that she might lose her motivation and even get pregnant a fourth time.

When I inquired about the incident, I was told by Dr. William Peterson, chief of obstetrics/gynecology, that while his department is sympathetic to voluntary sterilization, many of the doctors have regulations and requirements concerning women for whom they would perform tubal ligations, and the public had to respond to their caveats. He went on to say that there are no set hospital rules or regulations regarding tubal ligations and each doctor has the right to set the limits of the procedures he or she would perform.

"There are two or three doctors I know who would be supportive of this. But if they weren't on duty at the time, it would be difficult to get one of them in . . . . " He said one doctor who was willing to do the surgery was called to attend to a private patient.

Nobody is denying a physician's right not to perform a procedure the doctor does not feel is appropriate, but that does not negate the patient's right to decide what to do with her own body or the hospital's responsibility to see that she has a physician who is supportive of her long-term goals.

Yes, many women on welfare or Medicaid have been coerced into sterilization. That, of course, is a horror, arguably genocide, and nobody is condoning that practice. But on the other hand, for a young unmarried woman to reach a painful decision, live with it for months and not have it effected when the time came is horrendous. Dr. Peterson called this case "rare." But the difficulty this hospital had in effecting the carefully thought-out solution of this one woman may be indicative of a problem worth the attention of funding agencies.

Meanwhile, says Sharron: "All I know is I felt like a second-hand person."