THE SENATE Judiciary Committee has approved something called the "human life federalism amendment." This newest vehicle of abortion foes, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and also known as the Hatch amendment, would amend the Constitution in order to erase the constitutional right to have an abortion established by the Supreme Court nine years ago.

The amendment would return the abortion question for decision by the states and Congress. But it is not a states' rights or "new federalism" initiative, for it stipulates that whichever law-- state or federal--were "more restrictive" would prevail. Since widely varying laws would certainly be passed, endless litigation would be needed to determine whether, for example, a federal law permitting abortion in cases of rape and incest was more or less restrictive than a state law allowing it to save a woman's life and in cases of fetal deformity.

The reason for this complicated approach is the recognition by all sides that a direct constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion has little or no chance of passage for the foreseeable future. National polls have shown consistently for several years that, although personal feelings about the morality of abortion vary widely, about 70 percent of Americans believe that women should have the right to choose to have an abortion. Fewer than 20 percent favor a constitutional ban.

Anti-abortion groups hope that the two-step approach embodied in the Hatch amendment, by removing the constitutional right to have an abortion without at the same time forbidding it, would make it easier to surmount the formidable requirements--approval by two-thirds of Congress and by three-quarters of the state legislatures--for a constitutional amendment. Only simple majorities would then be required to pass laws prohibiting abortion.

This amendment is a better approach than the so-called "human life" bill--which is also before the Senate--that tries to define when life begins and would amend the Constitution by legislation. But its ultimate goal--to remove the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy--is wrong. That it also forces government intrusion in intimate personal decisions in the name of "conservative" principles, is an irony that shouldn't pass unnoticed.

More than a decade of debate has shown that abortion as a moral and religious issue is one on which Americans hold fervent and irreconcilable views. On matters of individual conscience such as this, laws cannot force a consensus that does not exist. The best answer, though it cannot satisfy everyone, is the one we currently have that preserves personal freedoms. Let the Senate leave it that way.