HIS LIFE WAS short, and we don't know much about the baby, not even if he had a name. But he was born in Bloomington, Ind., one Friday and died the next. He had Down's Syndrome and an esophagus that didn't work properly. His parents refused permission for an operation that could have corrected the problem in the esophagus, so oral feeding was impossible. They also refused permission for him to be fed intravenously. The baby was allowed to starve to death.

While he still lived, Monroe County officials appointed a guardian for the child and argued against the parents' decision. But the county court and the Indiana supreme court upheld it. When the court's ruling became known, a number of families called the hospital offering to adopt the baby.

Those are the facts. But what are we to make of this case, and what does it say about us as a society? Each of us who does not have a handicapped child feels an honest, if secret, relief that we were never faced with the terrible news that was given to the Indiana couple. But each of us who knows a loving family with a Down's Syndrome child can only look with profound admiration on the courage, faith and devotion with which some families respond to adversity. And all who have known Down's Syndrome children who read and write, participate in family life and beam with pride at each victory--such as a Special Olympics win--know the joy these children can experience--and give. Life for them, with a missing chromosome and even with a repaired esophagus, can be a life very much worth living.

Some would argue that it is not necessary, as a matter of ethics, to undertake extraordinary medical procedures to prolong artificially the life of a person for whom life would have no meaning. They would be right. The Karen Quinlan case is an example of this situation. People who are in terminal comas or whose brains do not function at all need not be kept alive by mechanical means or heroic surgery. And persons who are fully capable of making such a decision themselves may choose not to accept treatment that would only prolong life in its last stages.

But it seems clear that providing nourishment to a newborn Down's Syndrome baby is not such an extraordinary medical procedure, even if food must be provided intravenously. The Indiana baby died not because he couldn't sustain life without a million dollars worth of medical machinery, but because no one fed him. One case requires extraordinary intervention, the other is basic to our nature. He may have died eventually because his physical handicaps couldn't be corrected, but it never reached that point.

Had this baby lived he would have been cared for, if not by his parents, then by one of the families that volunteered a loving home, or by the state. We have, as a society, made the decision to support institutions that care for the handicapped and the unwanted. It may be an expensive decision, but it has been made freely by the people of a humane and very wealthy nation. Neither of these attributes is consonant with a court decision to allow a helpless Down's Syndrome infant to starve to death.