WASHINGTON (AP) _ A bill that would make harming a fetus during a violent act a federal crime is a ``flawed federal response'' to assaults against women, the Clinton administration told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

While Republicans continued to push the measure as ``only just,'' abortion rights supporters viewed it as an election-year stalking horse for abortion opponents.

``We owe this country a serious response, not debate on ideological proposals that ignore effective programs designed to help women crime victims,'' said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Senate panel.

The committee's chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, denied any intent to make the legislation a litmus test in the fight over abortion, but acknowledged that it was a hot-button issue.

``The only opposition that I can suppose is that some in the pro-choice movement believe that our bill draws attention to the effort to dehumanize, desensitize and depersonalize the unborn child,'' he said.

Eleanor D. Acheson, an assistant attorney general, said the Justice Department would recommend President Clinton veto the legislation if it reaches his desk. She said its ``identification of a fetus as a separate and distinct victim of crime is unprecedented as a matter of federal statute.''

The bill ``is in our view, a flawed federal response to the evils of such violence'' and ``may be perceived as gratuitously plunging the federal government into one of the most difficult and complex issues of religious and scientific consideration,'' Acheson said.

Instead, she said, the administration favors alternative legislation that would strengthen punishment for ``intentional violence against women whom the perpetrator knows or should know is pregnant.''

But Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee said, ``Everyone knows in these crimes there are two victims.''

Sonja Inge, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the bill's effect would be ``legally separating a woman from her fetus, which is like the beginning step of eroding her right to choose.''

The legislation, passed by the House last September, would make it a separate offense to injure or kill a fetus in the commission of a crime of violence against a pregnant woman. It would not apply to abortions performed with the mother's consent.

Twenty-four states already have laws that recognize the unborn as potential victims. Supporters said federal laws should also allow prosecutors to bring non-capital murder charges in cases of violence where a fetus dies, even if the mother survives.

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Eds: The bill numbers are S.1673 and H.R.2436.