Washington THERE I WAS, feeling compulsion to join the journalism pack and write about the Bush-Gorbachev summit in Helsinki, when a little ''factoid'' crossed my television screen: ''Number of Births out of Wedlock up 50 Per Cent Since 1980.''
I thought long and came to the realization that there was nothing that the Bush-Gorbachev meeting could do for America, or that Iraq could do to our country, that would be worse than what we have been doing to our children and ourselves.
We have wallowed in bewilderment over a ''sexual revolution'' that has produced not only millions of ''illegitimate'' babies born unloved, under circumstances of present and future tragedy, but also an explosion of new sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS, herpes, chlamydia, not to mention explosions of out-of-style sexual curses such as gonorrhea and syphilis.
Monday's USA Today featured the verbal war over the advantage or destructiveness of sexual education in America's schools. The National Center of Health Statistics reports that of the 539,696 white births out of wedlock in 1988, 172,163 were to teen-agers.
I cannot believe that real ''sex education'' in the schools might not have helped some of them -- and some of the 139,530 black teen-agers who had babies out of wedlock in 1988. Instead, many of them become welfare recipients, reduced to degradation by men bereft of conscience or hope.
The enduring ''story'' is not in the Middle East, but in the heartlands, bowels and ghettos of our own country.
The ''shocking'' story, according to Stephanie Ventura, a demographer at the National Center for Health statistics, is this: The percentage of white teen-age births that were illegitimate has risen dramatically, from 33 per cent in 1980 to 54 per cent in 1988. The corresponding increase among blacks was much smaller, but that meant a shameful 86 per cent of black teen-age births out of wedlock in 1980 rose to a mind-bending 91 per cent in 1988.
None of us should find consolation in the fact that white female teen-agers are ''catching up'' in building this social and economic catastrophe. But at least it belies the old racist line that some inherent lack of morals induces black girls to get pregnant out of wedlock.
I say that we need sex education desperately in our schools, even though I know that not all teachers understand the joys and perils of sex. I know that schools can never do it all, but they can do far more than the parents -- more likely, the one parent -- to whom most youngsters cannot talk meaningfully about sex under any circumstance.
Parents and teachers shielding teen-agers from sexual tragedy? Hopeless expectation when television, radio and the writers of novels drown teen-agers and their parents in a sea of raunchy fare designed to titillate glands rather than inspire intellects.
We must do a lot better on Broadway, in Hollywood, in the TV networks and many other areas that set standards of American life before we can pretend that someone in Baghdad, Tehran or Beirut is a grave threat to ''the American way of life.''