A bill designed to prevent sexual child abuse by surgically neutering convicted molesters, made public just days ago, is already building controversy that legislative leaders here predict will lead to a stormy floor fight over civil libertarian issues.

The legislation, filed by conservative Republican legislator Joyce Lewis, 50, is under review by the state attorney general for possible violations of U.S. constitutional guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment.

The bill, aimed at molesters found guilty of gross sexual misconduct involving children under age 14, stipulates surgical procedures involving nerves and glands which would render both men and women found guilty under the statute incapable of sexual arousal without harm to external genitalia.

"The sexual abuse of children has gotten to the critical point and I can't think of a better way to stop it," the four-term legislator said. "It is the only way I can think of to protect children and stop this kind of molestation."

John Martin, the Democratic house speaker, and State Sen. Sam Collins, Jr., the Republican chairman of the Joint Judiciary Committee, both predicted an arduous debate over the rights of the criminal versus children's rights. Under Maine law, the bill cannot be killed in committee.

"It is an issue that will leave civil libertarians concerned about the rights of an individual in a quandary," said State Human Services Commissioner David Smith, a tentative supporter of the legislation.

"I am seriously considering supporting this bill," he said. He detailed cases of child abuse he had seen which, he said, "turn your stomach."

"We seem to be experiencing a rise in these kinds of cases partly due to looser morality -- that 'if it feels good, do it' mentality, without considering with whom," said Carolyn McTeague, program manager for the state Children's Protective Services Agency.

While agreeing with the intent of the bill, McTeague doubted its effectiveness: "Since the act is one of violence rather than sex, I'm not sure anyone can prove these people would stop attacking....

"The act would very probably result in murder rather than sexual child abuse if the bill is enacted," she said.

McTeague suggested instead longer prison terms for sexual molesters of children, citing studies by Boston-based authorities Ann Burgess and Nick Groth who have concluded that most sex offenders cannot be rehabilitated.

Questions over the effectiveness of the legislation and the constitutional rights of the offender leave the chances of enactment in doubt, according to speaker Martin.

"This is the 'Year of the Child' -- a year in which a great deal of attention could well result in increasing punishment for child sex abusers," said Collins. "But if the attorney general rules it unconstitutional, the bill is dead; it will not gain much support."

The Maine chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union already vehemently opposes the measure.

"It seems very barbaric, like something out of the Dark Ages," said Jean Sampson, executive director of the state ACLU chapter. "The idea of a civilized society doing that to people is so abhorrent that it far outweighs the benefits to society."

"I don't think this is cruel and unusual punishment," said Lewis, the mother of three grown children. "The only thing a man couldn't do is have sexual intercourse; it's not like he couldn't hold a job.

"And a person who thinks it might happen to him might be so scared it would be a deterrent," she added. "I only hope and pray some child will have a little better weekend because a molester was afraid."