Wayne Allen, a federal district judge in Oklahoma, has made a historic ruling in sending to trial a case in which a team of physicians decided, over a five-year period, which handicapped infants were to live and which were to die. The team's criteria included the economic circumstances of the children's parents.

The trial of the physicians and administrators at the state-run Oklahoma Children's Memorial Hospital in Oklahoma City will be the first in a federal court to explore the constitutional issues that arise when decisions on medical treatment are based on a child's degree of mental or physical handicap together with his social and economic status.

Among the plaintiffs are the parents of one of the infants who died for lack of sufficient treatment; the Spina Bifida Association of America; and the Association for Persons With Severe Handicaps. Representing them are the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled.

The medical team involved in this five-year life-or-death study was not in the least furtive. In fact, the case has become known in medical circles because the team, for the edification of peers around the country, published in the October 1983 issue of Pediatrics an article on what it had been doing.

The team focused on infants born with spina bifida -- an imperfect closure of part of the spinal column. Each child was evaluated by the team. Some were recommended for "active vigorous treatment," including an operation to close the spinal lesion as well as the implanting of a shunt to drain spinal fluid from the brain.

The parents of the other infants were told they were not obligated to have their children vigorously treated. Instead, they could choose "supportive care" only. That meant no surgery and no antibiotics to treat or preventinfection.

The criteria by which the medical team decided who was to survive included a formula intended to predict the quality of life of the handicapped child if he were allowed to grow up. One of the factors was the infant's physical and intellectual endowment. Another was society's likely contribution to the costs of raising the child. A third was the economic status of the infant's family.

As the leader of the team, Dr. Richard Gross, said on "MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour": "We felt that if the struggle for the family would be a considerable one . . . the family was not under an obligation to treat this child, and we left them that option."

Some of the families whose children died claim that they were never told of this quality-of-life and quality-of-the-family formula. They insist the doctors said only that they were giving a medical judgment.

John Smith -- whose son, Stonewall, did not qualify for vigorous treatment and died two months after birth -- was sick and living on welfare when his boy was born. On hearing afterward about the selection process, Smith told Kathleen Kerr of Newsday: "Whether I made $10 a month or $10,000 shouldn't enter into it. If it were their own, personal child, would it get the same care {as my son got}? If they can tell me yes, I'll be happy with what they did to my son."

Out of the 69 spina bifida infants in the Oklahoma study, 24 received only "supportive treatment." All these children died. Of those selected for full treatment, all but one lived, and he was killed in a car crash.

An expert in spina bifida, Dr. John M. Freeman of the Birth Defects Treatment Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, wrote to Pediatrics that the study surely did prove how to get infants to die quickly. (The Oklahoma team had said in its report that "the 'untreated survivor' has not been a significant problem in our experience.")

Dr. Freeman added that the 24 who died "might also have done well and might have . . . walked with assistive devices, gone to regular school, been of normal intelligence and achieved bowel and bladder control."

One of the constitutional questions at the trial will be whether those 24 infants were accorded "equal protection of the law."

Ending life because its "quality" doesn't meet someone's criteria is hardly confined to the nursery. The courts, led by the New Jersey supreme court, are legalizing euthanasia for people of all ages. Some are patients who are not in intractable pain, are not near death and are in no condition to ask for death -- or for life.

But like the infants in Oklahoma, they are being evaluated according to various formulas. And more and more of those who do not measure up are being denied even "supportive treatment," for it is now "ethical" for doctors to remove feeding tubes from people whose lives are judged not worth living