SEN. ORRIN HATCH, the Mormon senator fron the great state of Utah, began hearings Monday on his constitutional amendment to ban abortions with criticism of the Supreme Court's 1973 decision legalizing abortion as the product of the justices' personal beliefs. Then he promptly disclosed his own personal befiefs, which, he said, legitimize his attempts to grant fetuses the constitional protections granted people.

"Quite simply," he said, "I believe that abortion, under virtually all circumstances, is wrong because it involves the taking of a human life. This is my own moral, ethical and -- dare I say it -- religious perspective."

Hatch's proposed amendment is an insidious appeal to the states' rights mood of members of Congress who are tired of battling over abortion. The amendment states that "a right to an abortion is not secured by this Constitution. The Congress and the several states shall have the concurrent power to restrict and prohibit abortions: provided, that a law of a state which is more restrictive than a law of Congress shall govern."

Unlike Sen. John East (R-N.C.), who stacked the hearings on his human life bill with a self-defeating parade of antiabortion witnesses, Sen. Hatch is angling for respectability. For his first day of hearings he invited as expert witnesses John T. Noonan Jr., a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and Laurence H. Tribe, a law professor at Harvard. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) also testified. It was a morning for history lessons and for putting the abortion debate back in perspective.

"Amendments to the Constitution have generally reflected the outcome of issues resolved by the American people, sometimes after generations of debate and deep division of opinion," said Leahy, who is personally opposed to abortion. " . . . where we amended the Constitution without a national meeting of the minds, we were forced to retract the amendment, and only after devastating effects on the society . . . Constitutional amendments memorialize consensus. They do not create it."

Packwood reached into English history and the time of Oliver Cromwell, leader of the Puritans, and his New Model Army, which defeated the Royalist forces in the English Civil War. Quoting Churchill's "History of the English Speaking People," Packwood said, "It was the triumph of some 20,000 resolute, ruthless, disciplined, military fanatics over all that England has ever willed or ever wished."

"Always," said Packwood, "from the Magna Carta through the English Bill of Rights through our Bill of Rights through the Civil War amendments to date, the history of liberty has been the continued expansion of personal freedom and the continued limitation on the powers of government."

Abortion existed at the time of the framing of the Constitution, but it was not a procedure that framers saw a need to address in that document, said Packwood. Still, it is a freedom as protected as any other. Would the committee, he asked, favor an amendment allowing the states to restrict freedom of speech?

Hatch, who has set six more days of hearings on his bill, is defending his effort by saying that deep divisions still exist in the country over abortion. But those divisions also seem to be a matter of his personal belief.

According to the latest Associated Press-NBC poll, 78 percent of the people interviewed believe abortion should be left up to the woman and her physician. Some 49 percent of those surveyed believe abortion is wrong, but two out of five of them said that it should not be illegal. Two-thirds of all those polled are against a constitutional amendment banning abortion.

What deep division is arising in the country over abortion is arising because people like Orrin Hatch are seeking to impose their moral and ethical and religious views on the rest of us. Packwood called them modern-day Puritans and warned they would not stop until they have restricted all liberties with which they disagree.

Hatch criticized the Supreme Court justices who upheld the right of a woman to obtain an abortion, saying they acted more out of personal belief than constitutional reasoning. But, in fact, the justices grounded their reasoning in the privacy guaranteed by the Constitution. That Hatch can find no similar protections for his beliefs is evidenced by the fact that he has to try to change the Constitution in order to prevail.

And in so doing, he is using the Senate as his pulpit, neatly forgetting the separation of state and religion that is in the Constitution. While his goal may be less than worthy, his first day of hearings have provided an important reminder that the core of the abortion debate is not whether abortion is right or wrong, but whether we, as a people, are going to be vanquished by modern Puritans and allow government to take away our personal freedoms.