The dramatic story behind China's crisis-driven population policy is obscured by Steven W. Mosher's inflammatory account of coerced abortion and sterilization in one Chinese village {"One Family, One Child: China's Brutal Birth Ban," Outlook, Oct. 19}.

Several years ago, demographers stumbled on a shocking discovery as they pieced together statistics from China's recent past. Perhaps the greatest human catastrophe in history occurred in China between 1958 and 1962. As many as 30 million people may have died of famine during those years as a result of severe crop damage two years in a row and the government's flawed agricultural and urbanization policies. Despite the enormity of the crisis, China's leaders successfully hid their country's agony from the rest of the world.

Following the famine years, family-planning campaigns launched to avert an even greater human catastrophe in the future were interrupted by Mao's Cultural Revolution. But in 1971, China's leaders returned to pragmatism, aggressively promoting late marriages, long intervals between births and a two-child family to protect the health and lives of future generations.

However, by 1979, the country's baby-boom generation had matured to marriage age, threatening to undo all of China's progress. The government launched a one-child-per-couple campaign that year, which encouraged, but did not mandate, stricter birth planning. Three years later, a national census undertaken with support from the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), showed that China's population had doubled since 1949, topping the 1-billion mark, and was still rising too quickly to avert future economic crises and a famine of immense proportions.

With great reluctance, China's leaders amended the government's official stance from one which "advocates and encourages birth planning" to one which states that "both husband and wife have the duty to practice family planning." Although the government emphasized that abortion would be permitted but not mandated in case of contraceptive failure, occasional reports of heavy-handed tactics by local population program officials have been widely publicized. Chinese leaders condemn the actions of party zealots, but they stress that in a country of 1 billion people it is impossible to prevent all cases of coerced abortions.

Lost in the ensuing scuffle of debate over China's population policy is the country's huge contribution to a dramatic slowdown in the world's population growth rate. Since the late 1960s, the world's growth rate has slowed by about 20 percent. The credit for practically all of that decline goes to China. Yet, although we owe China a debt of gratitude for its sacrifice, the Reagan administration's response has been to cut off U.S. funding to UNFPA "to avoid the appearance of condoning certain practices of China's family planning programs," withdrawing support for the U.N. group's family-planning work in China and other Third World countries even though it admits that UNFPA "neither funds abortions nor supports coercive family-planning practices through any of its programs" in China or elsewhere.

Population watchers point out that because China's 1 billion inhabitants make up one-fifth of the world's people, any shift away from China's one-child family policy will have a critical impact on the rest of the world. They warn that condemning China for its self-sacrifice and withholding much-needed funding support for its census-taking, research and family-planning efforts are ultimately self-destructive.

Nancy M. Debevoise The writer is a former communications director for Zero Population Growth, Inc.

"One Family, One Child: China's Brutal Birth Ban" deserves the additional subtitle: "A Brutal and Biased Analysis of China's Population Policy." Steven Mosher's article seems to be an attempt to arouse American sympathy for Chinese couples who want more than one child and to criticize the Chinese government for intruding "on the intimate affairs of the family to a degree not seen in China since the Cultural Revolution."

From two examples, Mosher generalizes -- without explanation -- to "tens of millions of couples whose desire for another child has pitted them against a state bent on curbing China's population." It is not clear whether Mosher objects to the policy or only to the means of carrying out the policy, but I believe he glosses over the most important points: China continues to face a critical overpopulation problem, and China's options are limited.

I am a linguist, and three months ago I returned to the United States after one year of teaching English in the Harbin Institute of Electrical Technology, in the capital of China's northeastern Heilongjiang Province. My students and other Chinese friends were quite open about discussing China's policies and problems. In numerous conversations ranging over various topics, we discussed China's population problem.

The attitude I heard expressed was that no one was happy with the official policy of encouraging each family to have only one child, but that everyone agreed that China has no other choice and that the policy is a necessary evil.

A Chinese doctor gave me information that directly contradicts two of Mosher's claims. One, sterilization is not and has never been mandatory. The reason is that if a couple's only child dies, then sterilization would prevent them from having a second chance to have a single child. Two, it is not and has never been illegal to have an IUD removed. Other means of birth control are available and officially approved. What is illegal is having more than one child, except under special circumstances, such as having twins or belonging to one of China's ethnic minorities.

In Harbin, and during a month of traveling to about 10 cities in the south of China, I was physically impressed with the urgency of China's overcrowding. China cannot wait for individual families gradually to reduce the number of children. Available housing is too limited, buses are packed to overflowing, public places are filled with jostling crowds. Privacy is difficult to attain, not because of government policy, but because of the physical limitation of space available to each individual.

Under these circumstances, I think that China has made remarkable progress in dealing with an urgent problem. Couples are choosing to have only one child per family. China's economic development is catching up with its population, a situation which is quite different from that in many developing countries. The urgency, however, will continue for some time, and China deserves understanding rather than misguided emotional attacks.

Donald R. Goral