A Senate subcommittee yesterday decided, by a 3-to-2 party-line vote, that human life begins at conception and a fetus is entitled to the legal rights of a human being.

The move was the first congressional step toward ending eight years of legalized abortions in the nation. But final action on the controversial legislation, which is commonly known as the human life bill and is a major goal of anti-abortion forces, apparently will be delayed until next year.

In approving the legislation, conservatives on the Senate Judiciary separation of powers subcommittee agreed to delay a vote in the full 18-member committee until hearings are held on a constitutional amendment banning abortion.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said the Senate Judiciary constitution subcommittee he chairs will not hold hearings on the anti-abortion amendment until this fall, and as a "practical" matter final action on either measure won't occur until next year.

This allowed both sides of the issue to declare victory. "It's definitely a win for us," said John Mackey of the Ad Hoc Committee in Defense of Life, an anti-abortion group. "It's the first substantive piece of legislation on abortion ever to be reported out of subcommittee."

"We see this as a real victory for us," said National Abortion Rights Action League spokeswoman Marguerite Beck-Rex. "The battle is back where it started -- on the constitutional amendment."

Anti-abortion forces designed the human life bill as a maneuver to circumvent the 1973 Supreme Court decision that voided most laws against abortion. The bill could be passed by a simple majority, rather than the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment.

Sen. John P East (R-N.C.), chairman of the separation of powers subcommittee, originally hoped to hold two days of hearings on the bill, and move it quickly through the full Judiciary Committee. But after widespread protests he expanded the emotional hearings to eight days spread over several months.

East opened yesterday's session before a standing-room-only crowd by declaring the Supreme Court abortion decision represented the "most flagrant misuse of judicial power in 20th century America." He called the human life bill a "modest attempt" to correct a "constitutional crisis."

He also insisted that the bill "does not make abortion murder," as its opponents have claimed.

Hatch and the two Democrats on the subcommittee expressed deep concern over the constitutionality of the bill. "As a former fetus, I'm opposed to abortion," said Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), a former judge. But he called the bill "an exercise in futility" and predicted the Supreme Court would declare it unconstitutional.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who persistently raised questions about the measure during hearings, said the bill, sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), "undermines the role of the judiciary" and "will lead to an undercutting of the roles of the states in our federal system."

Hatch, a longtime opponent of legalized abortion, called the bill "one of the most controversial single pieces of legislation in recent Congresses" and expressed "serious constitutional reservations" about it.

However, Hatch voted with the two other Republicans on the subcommittee, East and Sen. Jeremiah Denton (Ala.), in approving the bill. Baucus and Heflin, both Democrats, voted against it.

The bill states that "each human life exists from conception," and "Congress further finds that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States protects all human beings."