She was the very model of good behavior at her first press conference. Maybe 14 years later, she would storm out of a room yelling back at her parents, "I never asked to be implanted!" But at three days old, Elizabeth Jordan Carr, the first American conceived in a dish, cuddled against her mother, held her own nose, clenched her own first and promptly fell asleep.

The most hardened opponent of "in vitro" fertilization had to be infected by the delight of the 28-year-old mother, Judith Carr. The most qualm-ridden professor with a list of ethical questions about "test-tube babies" had to smile at this scene of mother and infant.

Even a room full of reporters put aside their normal cool and applauded the existence of this very wanted child.

It was an odd televised ceremony that I watched from my living room, and a touching one, marking the difficult transition the Carrs had made from couple to family, formally introducing a child to the world. It carried more meaning than the usual show and-tell of infancy.

"I hope they understand," said Judith Carr to the critics of in vitro fertilization. "We have our child and that's what we wanted."

It's not hard to understand that "want." Indeed, Elizabeth's costly life comes out of our empathy.

She is in some ways the creature of a system that responds well to private needs, is engaged dramatically in producing happy endings to personal stories. We do better for individuals than for masses. We give more applause to the extraordinary than to the mundane.

Seeing Elizabeth in the spotlight, I couldn't help making comparisons between the haves and have-nots, between dramatic problems and routine.

Nine months ago, Elizabeth, then a small collection of cells, was inserted into a womb of sophisticated technology. Her birth was a tribute, as they say, to modern medicine.

Nine months ago, the infant mortality rate, which can be controlled by the common denominators of old-fashioned care, had risen in Washington, D.C., by 10 percent. The deaths were not a tribute to modern politics.

During the summer and fall, Elizabeth grew in her mother's womb. She was carefully nurtured, watched over by the accomplices in this creation.

During the same seasons, the federal program that had fed two million pregnant women and children, WIC (Women, Infants and Children), was tossed into a block grant and then cut. There will be less food money this year for these everyday pregnancies. This food has made the difference, all the research said, between a healthy baby and an "undesirable outcome."

Now, in the days after Elizabeth's birth, some scientists speculate about the risks of this fancy procedure. Much is already known about the risks of poor nutrition. As a people we are better at caring about a child than we are at caring about children. Better at performing feats of caring than routines.

It's not just Elizabeth. Tell us about an abandoned body, and we will call by the hundreds will offers of food, money, even adoption. Tell us about a child who will not survive without a fancy operation, and we will set up a fund to buy its health.

But tell us about the 40,000 children who die every day in the world, and our eyes glaze over at impersonal numbers. Tell us that 13 out of a thousand infants will die in this country and it seems remote. Talk about nutrition for two million of the poor and pregnant and we do not find it... urgent.

Perhaps, after all, we need a glossy magazine photo of each pregnant woman who promises to send baby pictures if we keep her in flour and cheese and milk.

After watching Elizabeth's performance, I went back to the Natural History magazine on my lap. I read an article about birds that only feed their offspring if they stay within the nesting circle. If one goes a foot beyond the invisible marker, the parents will ignore the cries of their own young.

Our society's a bit like that, I thought. We care for those who live within a certain circumference, or who capture our attention because they are extraordinary. We let some in and keep others out. And we don't ask ourselves often enough to expand the circle of caring.