I ONCE WORKED WITH a woman, quite a smart woman with a successful husband and plenty of money, who killed her seven-month-old baby. One day the infant had been doing what infants sometimes do -- screaming for hours. She tried everything to calm him: She fed him, rocked him, held him and sang to him. Yet he screamed on, and so she smashed his head open with a hammer.

My students and I made home visits in the ghetto of Wilmington. I was supposed to be teaching them about health education and health maintenance, but most of the time it was impossible because the objects of our efforts didn't care a whit about their own or their children's health. They were mainly poor, uneducated, unskilled, unemployed, generally beaten people who believed they had no reason to hope for future improvement. Child abuse was the norm in these homes.

The parade of burns, welts, bruises and lacerations was unending. These were people who lashed out at their children as a matter of course, not as a violent culmination of an isolated instance of rage or frustration. The prevalent attitude, often expressed outright, was, "These are my children and I can treat them any way I please."

I tried, and I taught my students to try, to understand why so many of these parents consistently battered their children. I tried to teach alternate ways of relating to children, of recognizing the difference between behavior that is really mischievous and that which is just natural to children. For example, I had to explain that a 10-month-old who gleefully throws his full bottle as far as he can is doing what babies do -- he is not "bad" and does not deserve to be slapped across the face for it. I really tried.

But one day something happened that solidified my are criminals of the worst sort. A student and I were in a woman's home trying to convince her to begin prenatal care for her six-month pregnancy. The three of us sat in the living room with her two children. One was an infant of about a year who staggered about with the gait so typical of infants learning to walk. He wore a diaper at half- mast, a thin T-shirt and nothing else. It was winter and I was cold in two sweaters. The other child was about 2, shy at first, but when I invited her to sit on my lap, she snuggled into me affectionately, and then squirmed out after a few minutes to go about her investigations.

The woman sat on the couch with her legs crossed, and the baby soon waddled in front of her. She calmly and deliberately put her foot out and tripped him. He fell, bumped his head on a table, and began to cry. She remained impassive and made no move to comfort him, to kiss the hurt, or even to acknowledge what had happened.

As I was trying to decide what to say in response to this event, her hand reached behind her, and quick as a flash she whipped out a leather belt. Then, like a snake uncoiling and striking, she lashed it across the back of the two- year-old, who was exploring the contents of my purse. The child screamed in pain and rage, and as a reflex I clutched her to me. The mother yanked the child out of my arms and warned me never to touch her again, as if she were accusing me of something. Her voice was full of indignation as she told me to mind my own business.

I took the belt out of her hand because I didn't know what else to do, and she just looked defiantly at me and said she had more belts upstairs. She meant it, and she meant to use them. She will hurt those children again, and she will think nothing of it. To the best of my knowledge, the state child protective service did nothing to protect those children, and the one yet to be born, from this unceasing hell.

It is impossible for experiences like these to have no effect on one's beliefs. I cannot think of this woman, and the many others I visited during those two years, as being only victims of circumstance. A crime of assault is just that, regardless of how assaultive persons come to reach the depths of depravity where they lash out at their own children. These parents, in addition to receiving whatever forms of mental rehabilitation are thought appropriate, must be punished for their crimes -- and I have even come to believe that involuntary sterilization is a justifiable punishment.

Parents who repeatedly and deliberately abuse their children should not be permitted to have more; they have forfeited their right to reproduce. People who pour boiling water over their own children, who burn their baby cheeks with cigarettes, who beat them with the business end of a leather belt until they are beyond tears, beyond screams, until they retreat into their own dark world of constant terror -- these people should be sterilized.

Enforced or involuntary sterilization is a serious proposal, anathema to many people for many reasons. It has been used in the past in this country in the most capricious way and for the most evil reason: to decrease the population of certain groups such as poor blacks and the mentally retarded, not because they proved to be bad parents but only because some parts of society believed them to be "undersirable."

The right to reproduce is as natural and inalienable as the rights to life and liberty, and it cannot be revoked without proper cause. But where there is a compelling reason, the state can punish by revoking these rights.

Due process exists to ensure that such judgments are deserved and are as fair as possible. But the law does indeed provide for the revocation of rights. Those who repeatedly abuse their children, by the very nature of their perverse and violent acts, I believe, have forfeited their right to bear more children.

States have been largely unsuccessful in protecting children from abuse, mostly because courts are reluctant to separate parent and child. Those children who are removed from home because the reasons to do so are overwhelming fare little better in foster homes or in public institutions. Moreover, many psychologists, social workers and others who come into professional contact with child abusers tend to see them as mentally ill rather than as criminally violent.

Child abusers may indeed be suffering from a mental sickness of one kind or another, but they have also beaten, kicked, drowned, punched and stabbed their children. This is assault and battery. This is a crime. Violence of parent against child is condoned, forgiven and excused in ways that other forms of personal violence never would be. Raising one's hand against a fellow human being is a serious crime. Why do we excuse it in this instance?

The law provides for the revocation of other rights: Drunk drivers can be denied licenses; thieves, muggers and other assorted bandits can be prevented from walking the streets; and traitors, murderers and kidnappers may lose their right to life. The irresponsible exercise of a right, no matter how fundamental, gives society the right to revoke it.

A relatively free society such as ours requires individuals to exercise self-restraint in their behavior and to live in a reasonably responsible manner vis-a-vis the rights of others. When they fail to do so, they have forfeited one or another of their rights.

Just retribution implies that the punishment will fit the crime, and although it is arguable that abusive parents should also be imprisoned, that decision does not negate the justification for sterilizing them as well.

It has been said that all parents are potential abusers, that if the circumstances are right any one of us might lash out at our children. But not all of us do. Not everyone murders in response to intense rage. Not everyone steals when in need of money.

There are differences in what peoople are capable of doing, in the value they place on their children, and in the way they behave as parents. Parents are obligated to protect their children. If they choose to batter them instead, they must be punished and prevented from having more. Involuntary sterilization of those who repeatedly abuse their children is legally and morally justifiable.