A bill that would recognize a fetus as a separate entity under federal law is moving swiftly through the House, opening a new front in the battle between those in favor of abortion rights and those against them.

The Unborn Victims of Violence Act, sponsored by Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), would for the first time establish penalties for those who harm a fetus, either knowingly or unknowingly, while committing a federal crime--such as bank robbery, kidnapping or terrorism. The bill defines the unborn child as a fetus in utero.

Graham said his bill, approved by the House Judiciary Committee yesterday on a 14 to 11 vote, is not an attack on abortion rights. He said it is an effort to recognize the additional harm and pain involved when a fetus is injured during the commission of a crime, citing the three pregnant women who were killed in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

"There is going to be a lot of all-party support for holding criminals liable for destroying unborn children, regardless of how you feel about abortion," he said in a recent interview.

But several House Democrats and abortion rights advocates contend that Graham's measure is aimed at raising the status of a fetus to that of the mother and would help undermine abortion rights. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said the Graham bill was "another attempt to cut away at the rights of women to determine their own reproductive choices."

Lofgren yesterday proposed a substitute bill, the Motherhood Protection Act, which would introduce an extra penalty for assaulting a pregnant woman while committing a federal crime, but would not recognize the fetus as separate from the mother. It failed in the Judiciary Committee, 20 to 8.

The Graham bill, unveiled on July 1, is expected to be debated on the floor of the House before it recesses at the end of October. It covers harm to the fetus caused while committing a federal crime--a crime on federal property, against federal employees or covered by federal law. Exempted under the bill are medical treatment of the mother, an abortion agreed to by a woman or an act by the mother herself that affects her fetus.

Graham is backed by prominent antiabortion GOP lawmakers, Reps. Charles T. Canady (Fla.) and Christopher H Smith (N.J.), and by the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), which hailed the measure as a "major new right-to-life bill."

Similar measures have been passed in 11 states and, according to the NRLC, have not been successfully challenged in the courts. Graham's supporters believe their argument has been helped by the decision of Arkansas prosecutors earlier this month to charge four men with capital murder under the state's new Fetal Protection Law. Police allege Eric Bullock, 29, hired three accomplices to assault his pregnant former girlfriend and kill their baby, which was due imminently.

Supporters of the Graham bill include Michael Lenz, whose wife, Carrie, was pregnant with their first child when she was killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. He argued that the real death toll was not 168 but 171, including his child and two other fetuses whose mothers died in the blast.

"Most Americans would want somebody who attacked a federal building and destroyed a child to suffer and get an additional punishment under the law," said Graham. "I think most Americans would agree with that concept."

But Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproduction Rights Action League, said the Graham bill was "designed to elevate all stages of prenatal development to the status of a person."

Kathryn Engustian, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "If what the bill's sponsors truly planned to achieve was protecting a woman's right to continue her pregnancy uninterrupted by acts of violence, we would be working side-by-side to ensure the bill's passage. But that's not what this bill is about."

A news release on the NRLC's Web site last month said: "The bill was in drafting stage for months, but there was no public discussion, in order to avoid tipping off the pro-abortion lobby." The claim had been deleted on an otherwise unchanged news release on the same site this week. One abortion rights lobbyist admitted that the bill had "definitely caught us off-guard." Opponents of the Graham bill said they believe it is likely to pass in the House, but without a sufficient majority to overturn an expected presidential veto. The White House has not weighed in on the measure.