By Peggy Gargis
BIRMINGHAM, Ala (Reuters) - Alabama lawmakers late on Thursday passed a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, the latest state legislature with Republican majorities to tighten abortion restrictions.
If signed into law by Republican Governor Robert Bentley, the measure would make Alabama the sixth state to ban abortion after 20 weeks, when some controversial research suggests a fetus can feel pain.
The measure, which was approved by large majorities in both chambers of the Legislature on the final day of the session, makes no exceptions for cases of rape or incest.
Alabama state law currently allows abortion up to the stage of fetal viability, usually between 24 and 26 weeks gestation.
The 20-week abortion ban would make it a felony to perform an abortion after that time unless the woman's pregnancy puts her at risk of death or substantial physical harm.
Under one provision of the bill, a physician found in violation could possibly be blocked by the patient, her family members or guardian, from performing further abortions.
It also requires physicians to report each abortion to a state database and compile an annual report of abortions.
The new restrictions are similar to ones enacted in Idaho, Indiana, Kansas and Oklahoma earlier this year and a law passed in Nebraska in 2010, said Elizabeth Nash, public policy associate with the Guttmacher Institute, an organization focusing on sexual and reproductive health.
"The bills that ban abortion at 20 weeks reveal the low regard the legislature holds not only for women, but also the U.S. Supreme Court," Nash said.
"The Court has ruled that abortion must be legal at least until viability. After viability, states can only ban abortion as long as it is allowed in cases to protect the woman's health and life."
The Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973.
Republicans took over majority control of both chambers of the Alabama legislature last year for the first time in 136 years. Republican state Representative Kerry Rich, the abortion bill's sponsor, credited the political sea change with keeping the measure alive.
Democrat Representative Patricia Todd raised several objections to the bill during debate on Thursday, including the cost of legal challenges.
"Of course, we know this is going to get litigated and cost the state a lot to defend it in terms of time and money that we don't have, " Todd said.
Pro-life activists were buoyed by the final outcome.
"I've been observing (the legislature) and advocating for many years and have never seen individual representatives seriously considering the value of human life like they have this session," said Cheryl Ciamarra, national director of Alabama Citizens for Life.
A bill that would have defined an implanted fertilized egg as a person didn't reach a final vote.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)