Once again, California instructs the nation. The lesson this time comes from Loma Linda Medical Center, where the heart of one infant was transplanted into another. Medical science will learn a great deal from such a procedure. The rest of us can learn a lot from what preceded it.

Initially, the transplant committee rejected the application of Baby Jesse's parents. They were the problem. Not only were they unmarried, but the mother had just turned 17 and reportedly had a "substance abuse problem." It was the initial judgment of the committee that this couple could not cope with a critically sick infant. Had the "Donahue" show, functioning as the Great God Media, not intervened, a different baby would have received the available heart.

As always in these cases, the nation is confronted with something so novel there are no rules. But in this case there are -- or there used to be. Consider this: Had Baby Jesse not required a new heart, no one would have intervened. Given the same unmarried parents, the same teen-age mother, the same "substance abuse problem," the child would have been born and taken from the hospital by his parents. They could cope or not cope; it was their own business. This is the state of child care in America.

The extraordinary throws a light on the ordinary. At about the same time Baby Jesse was being born, the nation was engaged in a mighty debate about teen-age pregnancies. There is an epidemic of them, and they particularly afflict the poor, black community. One out of every four births to blacks is to teen-agers. In 1985, 50 percent of black families with children were headed by a woman. We all know the consequences of those statistics.

The upshot is that there has been a call for a return to conventional morality. The traditional family is being extolled, and we are being told, by both black and white leaders, that the government can do only so much. It is time for the poor to look after themselves, to take some responsibility for their own lives. Jesse Jackson says this, and so, too, does Ronald Reagan. For once, there is near-unanimity in America. God bless the traditional family and its traditional values.

There is simply no arguing with this. We all know what is best for children regardless of whether we ourselves provide it -- just as there is no hypocrisy in a divorced president's talking about family values. There is, though, an element of wishful thinking in saying that morality or values is the remedy -- or that we can ever go back to a time when the traditional family was the norm and out-of-wedlock births were a rarity.

Despite their good intention, those who call for a return to traditional morality may be spitting in the wind. Their message is carried in one magazine, while in another you can see pictures of celebrities like Jessica Lange, Tatum O'Neill and Jerry Hall (People Magazine, March 10) who have had children out of wedlock or were pregnant and unmarried. Ingrid Bergman was once banished from Hollywood for such behavior, but now it is commonplace. Try explaining to a teen-age girl why Tatum O'Neill can do what she cannot.

It's good to emphasize values. But the call to a moral resurgence is no substitute for programs. In an inner-city ghetto deserted by the middle class, who is going to set middle-class values? Where are the case workers who will work with teen-age mothers to try to break the cycle of poverty? Where are the social workers who help the immature and ignorant cope with one of life's most challenging chores -- -raising children? Who will check on child abuse and malnutrition, and will there be child-care programs to enable the mothers to work or return to school?

To an extent, all those programs exist. But in recent years they have been de-emphasized, underfunded, and where they have failed, lectures on morality have been substituted. The transplant committee at Loma Linda knew better. It took a hard look at the parents and thought they could not cope. We take a hard look at the same sorts of people and ask them to repent.

But if our concern is the children, then we have to provide support services. That means programs and that, alas, means money. Right now, the program amounts to a lot of talk and that, as we all know, is cheap. In the end, we will get what we pay for.