I have this wet-blanket of a friend who can see the down side of Heaven. Naturally she did not share my elation at the recent news out of the United Nations Children's Fund.

We have it in our grasp, the report said, to save the lives of millions of infants--as many as 20,000 children per day. And all it would take would be four simple steps: oral rehydration (sugar-water) therapy for children with diarrhea, breast-feeding of infants, the use of growth charts to detect malnutrition, and universal immunization against childhood diseases.

With these simple, low-cost measures, said Dr. Richard Jolly, UNICEF's deputy director for programs, "half the young children who now die each year would live." Only "doubts and skepticism need to be overcome," he said.

My friend has no doubt that Jolly knows what he's talking about. It's her skepticism that is so discouraging.

"Where are all these imperiled children?" she asked, quickly answering her own question. "In Mexico, Central and South America, the West and East Indies, Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, much of the Near East and most of Africa, that's where: places in which astronomical birthrates, in spite of high death rates, have produced child populations which now outnumber the adult populations; places which cannot adequately feed the children who now survive, nor educate them, nor, later, employ them; places in which the total population now doubles every 15 or 20 years. And UNICEF wants to enable their populations to double every eight or 10 years. Thanks a lot."

But surely she couldn't seriously want to condemn needless millions of children to preventable death.

"I don't want to condemn anybody to anything," she insisted. "But you cannot convince me that if Jolly had thought this thing through, he wouldn't be proposing a program to increase the Third World populations on this sort of scale while not adding one bushel of grain, one quart of milk, one blanket or roof, one unpolluted well, one schoolroom or teacher, one medic, paramedic or nurse, or one job that pays a living wage. This man is talking about doubling the number of additional children and infants to be fed, housed, doctored, educated and employed--and doubling it every year."

I reminded her that the normal trend is for declines in death rates to be followed by declines in birthrates. That being so, surely the rest of the world could spring for sugar-water to save all these lives.

"Sugar-water can save the children's lives," she insisted, "but after that, they will need to eat, and they will continue to need to eat for as long as they live. As for the falling birthrate, I don't doubt that will happen--eventually: after the long, slow process of persuading the women that their value need not be measured by their eight, 10 or 12 children, and persuading the men that their status and manhood need not be counted in infants sired; after bucking tradition, culture, religion, habit and public opinion. In 10 or 12 years, a dent might be made in the annual birthrate. But by then there would be this additional 70 million per year of surviving children reaching child- producing age . . ."

"You're talking mathematics instead of compassion," I told her. "If these millions of babies were pink, instead of black, yellow and brown, you wouldn't be speaking so glibly of allowing them to die in such numbers--in effect murdering them by inaction."

"Of course it sounds heartless," she said. "But the parents of pink babies are already responsible for much of the globe's overpopulation, having put an end to most of the major plagues and famines which once checked and slowed population growth.

"Well, I suppose we could help matters some by continuing the dissemination of modern weapons. I read somewhere that in the last 15 years alone, some 4 million people have been massacred by their own countrymen in Burundi, Indonesia, Kampuchea, Uganda, the Sudan and East Timor. That's 4 million fewer mouths to feed."

"Racist," I said.