Unlucky in his chromosones, Mike Skinner, a three-month-old infant, was lucky medically. A month before his birth in early May, doctors in San Francisco discovered fetal abnormalities. They operated, successfully.

Surgery on unborn patients is such a new art that prenatal medicine commands front-page news stories. The healthiness of the Skinner baby--"the doctors were all smiling and I was overjoyed," his mother told UPI--was reported not long after hearings before a Senate subcommittee on when human life begins.

The clamor aroused by pro-abortion forces opposed to the hearings was an eruption of controversy that pushed aside, once again, the central issue of the abortion debate: what are the rights of human beings not yet born?

The parents of Mike Skinner, as well as their doctors a pnd the medical ethicist they consulted, believed that this unborn person had quite a few rights, beginning with the one to be born alive. Other couples, like the one in Boston who discovered the mother was carrying a Down's syndrome fetus and therefore ordered it to be killed through the heart with a needle, believe that you have a right to be born only if you are healthy.

This group is among the more reflective of the abortion advocates. At least it gives signs that it is wrestling with the ethics and morality of the question. Others, content with stridency and sloganeering, won't even get into the ring. They are well represented by Kathy Wilson, the new chairwoman of the National Women's Political Caucus. In a recent speech, she denounced Ronald Reagan as "a president who encourages Congress to nationalize a woman's body. . . ."

Dumping on Reagan is a sure applause line among many feminists. But it does no more than create a standoff with anti-abortionists who win cheers among their faithful for blasting the Supreme Court as baby-killers for its 1973 decision. Despite the prepackaged cant, women's bodies aren't being nationalized and the chamber of Harry Blackmun, who wrote the decision, is not a torture chamber.

All that's relevant is what kind of protection do we give to life, from the first stirrings to the final groan. Or to turn it around, is death to be an acceptable solution to social and personal problems that are overbearing?

To raise the question is not to minimize the immense cost paid by those faced with what is overbearing. I, for one, am not so sure of my abilities to face, much less overcome, life's cruelties and mysteries that I would tell the parents of a Mongoloid fetus to rise up to the challenge ahead, because raising a retarded child will be spiritually enhancing.

It may be for some parents, but to others the opposite is true. In a remarkably candid letter to The Los Angeles Times the other day, a man began: "I am writing to tell the other side regarding the letters on the killing of the unborn fetus. I have a 30-year-old mentally retarded son, whose life has been no thHOing but grief for him and us. . . . Every time I read letters from all those busybodies who would tell someone else how to live their lives and the decisions they should make, I wish I could send them my son for a month. Let them live with the problems that never end, the grief you feel, have always felt, and will until you die."

This is a persuasive plea that we should all have a merciful regard for the weight of the next person's cross. But it is no justification for abortion. Alternatives short of death are available, even if these alternatives are remote and rare.

Although it is depressingly true that few neighbors or institutions offer meaningful help to parents of the retarded, or rape victims, or pregnant teen-agers, that is no license to abandon the search for nonviolent alternatives.

That becomes despair. It sanctions the political and social system that has made it acceptable for the nation to rely on violent solutions to other problems that seem overbearing: capital punishment for despicable murderers, arms shipments to friendly Latin American dictators, the stockpiling of weapons to wipe out Russia should the need arise.

Life is sacred, everyone agrees, except when . . .

This list of "except whens" is a display of double standards. Either all of life is worth protecting--prenatal life included --or none is. When it's none, rationales replace moral absolutes. One group can say we need more bombs to preserve peace, while another holds that fetal life can be destroyed because a woman doesn't want her body nationalized.