At a time when federal deficits are posing a grave danger to the U.S. economy, it's hard to justify new programs that could add billions of dollars to that burden.

Yet there are some compelling arguments offered by a special committee of the National Institutes of Science in calling for universal access to government-funded prenatal care.The exhaustive study released this week called the nation's maternal health system "fundamentally flawed." One of every three pregnant women fail to obtain timely and adequate prenatal care - or any prenatal care at all.

This is partly due to the fact that one fourth of all American women of child-bearing age have no maternity health insurance.

One distressing result of this lack of care is diseased or handicapped newborn babies. Aside from the personal tragedy this represents, many then require costly care for much of their lives, usually at society's expense.

The committee recommended that a Medicaid-type program be adopted offering prenatal, delivery, and postpartum services to all women who need it. Congress just recently moved in this direction by authorizing prenatal care for all families whose income is up to 85 percent above the poverty level. Such aid would be offered by states with matching federal dollars.

While universal prenatal care would be expensive in the first years, it makes sense, even if considered only from a financial viewpoint.

For every dollar spent on prenatal care for low-income, poorly-educated women, about $3 would be saved that is usually spent on low-birthweight babies during the first year of life.

It's hard to argue with that kind of cost effectiveness. The only problem is that any money saved would probably be eaten up by being diverted into other federal medical programs. And the cost of prenatal care - small at first, but inevitably growing - would simply be added to the budget deficit.

But surely such problems are not insurmountable, considering all that's at stake.