"The law in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." --Anatole France

The law in its majestic equality allows the poor as well as the rich to pay for their own abortions. --The U.S. Supreme Court

These two pieces of public policy have meshed in my mind in the week since the Supreme Court ruled by one vote that Congress could play politics with Medicaid.

The five men in the majority said that it is perfectly constitutional for Congress to award and withhold payment for medical treatment according to its own morality. The five men said that it is perfectly constitutional for Congress to place a higher value on the potential life of a fetus than on the health of the woman carrying it.

If, of course, that woman is poor.

They have presented all of us with a perfectly constitutional and utterly cynical piece of Americana. Life isn't fair; the rich get richer and the poor have children.

It seems to me that this decision says more about economics in our culture than about abortion. The majority opinion talked about money as only the affluent can, as if it were just an incidental difference in the lives of people.

The Hyde Amendment, said the decision, had not prohibited the poor from seeking abortions, but "merely" withheld the money to pay for them.

Furthermore, the government as billpayer has a right to decide what bills it will pay. It can, said Justice Stewart, establish "incentives that make childbirth a more attractive alternative than abortion for persons eligible for Medicaid." He speaks of "incentives" as if the Hyde Amendment were a tax credit instead of a punishment for poverty.

By the amendment's own tortured reasoning, the justices managed to accomplish their continuing goal, to turn back another controversial policy to the legislative arena.

But at the same time, they wrote a classic opinion of the American Way of Life in which money talks and the poor are lectured. A way of life in which the one inequality we accept is econimic.

Not long ago, Barbara Ward, the social critic, wrote: "I have the impression that when we talk so confidently of liberty we are unaware of the awful servitude . . . of poverty when means are so small that there is literally no choice."

"This case," as Justice Brennan wrote in his dissenting opinion, "involves a special exclusion of women, who, by definition, are confronted with a choice between two serious harms: serious health damage to themselves on the one hand, and abortion on the other."

This is precisely the difficult point that middle-class women can decide by themselves with their physicians. Poor women, however, have been told by their government that they are valued more as vessels of the unborn.

There is nothing new here in our attitude toward the poor. The "incentive" to have children stops abruptly at birth. The Congress that cares so deeply about pregnancy promises no decent life at the other end of the birth canal for mother or child.

We will go on judging the poor for not controlling their lives, their destinies, their families -- even as we go on limiting their ability to do so. We will go on letting the government invade their lives -- even as we rule it out of ours.

Henry Hyde likes to say that those who favor legalized abortion are "elitists." He jovially calls those in favor of choice and privacy "Gucci Bolsheviks."

But it is not the rich who will ever suffer from abortion restrictions, even an anti-abortion constitutional amendment. They would do what they did before legalized abortion: fly themselves or their daughters to London, to Copenhagen, to safe distant clinics.

It is the poor who are most vulnerable, and the first affected by this wedge hammered into abortion rights. But soon, if the anti-abortion amendment is passed, the rest of us may be left wih only one right; the law in its majestic equality will allow all of us to book a space on that flight.