In the great debate now before Congress over the proper balance between the nation's domestic and defense needs, the political arguments too often are couched in all-or-nothing terms:

America's security requires that the Pentagon get every penny it requests. Thus, under no circumstances cut the defense budget. To do so means a weaker America.

America's people deserve the continued benefits of the national efforts that enhance the health, education and quality of life of all its citizens. Thus, the domestic programs that assist them must be preserved at all costs. Failure to do so weakens the fiber of the society.

Into this debate, and perhaps standing symbolically at the center of it, comes a report this weekend that ought to be weighed by every lawmaker and citizen. It concerns the health of babies who form America's future, sketches an unacceptable picture for this nation and sounds a quiet call to action in the best interests of the country.

The report deals with infant mortality rates in the South. It grows out of a task force of distinguished citizens, drawn from public and private life, formed after last summer's annual Southern Governors' Association meeting. Its first interim report, made public today, shows how far the South and the nation have yet to go in alleviating the ancient problems of poverty and poor health.

That fact ought to stir attention, for no region of the nation has experienced more dramatic progress in recent decades as the South.

For instance, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt made his celebrated second inaugural speech about seeing "one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished," the preeminent example of those problems lay in the South.

As America entered World War II, of 350,000 draft registrants who couldn't sign their names, nine out of 10 were southerners. Nearly six out of every 10 southerners then had never gone to school -- double the national rate -- and the levels of disease and ill health throughout that region were correspondingly shockingly high. Since then, of course, and most dramatically in recent years, the South has flowered into one of the most booming areas of the nation. Progress has been recorded at all levels, and in many respects the South sets the pace for the rest of the nation.

That's why the infant mortality report comes as a shock.

Some disturbing facts from the latest infant mortality statistics:

* In 1982, 10 of the 11 states with the worst infant mortality rates were in the South.

* In 1982, 17,971 southern babies died before their first birthday.

* Of the 1,415,916 babies born in the South that year, 247,239 were born to teen-age mothers (18 percent of births) -- and 5,554 of those babies were born to girls aged 14 and under.

* In 1982, 7.6 percent (or 107,418) of babies in the South were born too early or too small (under 5 pounds 8 ounces), compared with 6.3 percent of births in the non-South.

* In 1982, only about 71 percent of women in the South received early, adequate health care during pregnancy.

* Between 1981 and 1982, the infant mortality rates in seven of the southern states rose or did not change.

* Of all the children in the United States who have no medical coverage, more than half live in the South.

And, finally, this arresting fact:

* In 1982, for the first time since the late 1960s -- a decade that saw marked improvement in the overall U.S. infant mortality rate -- these rates of improvement began to slow. They could, if present trends continue, come to a standstill soon.

Two facts, according to the report, contribute to this unacceptable trend:

" . . . The leveling off is due to the fact that modern technology is reaching the limit in its application for saving smaller and smaller babies and the cuts in federally funded programs in the early 1980s have diminished some states' capacities to deliver comprehensive health care services."

The United States today ranks 12th among developed nations in infant mortality, a fact that is an indictment of this booming, bountiful society. And the South continues to be the region that consistently records the highest infant mortality rates.

It doesn't have to be that way -- which is the point the new report carefully makes as it sets out goals to be reached by the end of this decade. The report also addresses the spending debate over guns versus butter in the context of the budget deficit crisis, saying:

"The task force acknowledges the enormity of the federal budget deficit and the need to institute measures to reduce it. However, even within the context of these measures, federal programs which affect maternal and child health must be preserved."

South Carolina Gov. Richard W. Riley, chairman of the southern regional infant mortality task force, put it this way when we spoke:

"We agree with the president that extreme care and good sense must be applied to see that money is spent for programs that work. We believe the goals we have set are conservative and realistic. This country has a lot of health programs, but it doesn't really have a health policy. We believe that pregnant women and infants in the South and across the country must have access to a full and appropriate complement of health and social services regardless of financial or other barriers. It's the right thing to do, the wise thing to do, and the cost-effective thing to do."

Surely, there should be no dissenters from that point of view. Providing better health opportunities for the next generation of Americans is a matter of national security as important as seeing that weapons are provided so we can defend ourselves.