By Emily Le Coz
JACKSON, Mississippi (Reuters) - Mississippi lawmakers took steps to become the latest U.S. state to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy by passing a measure on Thursday that seeks to further restrict access to the procedure.
Legislation approved by the state's House of Representatives in a 89-22 vote asserts that a fetus can feel pain by 20 weeks of gestation, halfway through a full-term pregnancy, and that the state has a duty to protect the unborn child.
Abortions would be legal after 20 weeks only if a woman's life was in danger, according to the measure. Physicians who defied the law could lose their medical license.
The legislation now heads to the Republican-led Senate, where it has until March 4 to pass out of committee and March 12 to pass the full chamber.
Republican Governor Phil Bryant is expected to sign the bill into law. This is "another strong step for life in Mississippi," Bryant said on his Facebook page after the vote on Thursday.
The U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide in 1973. Lawmakers in more conservative states have in recent years enacted laws that seek to place restrictions on the procedure, especially on late-term abortions, citing hotly debated medical research that a fetus feels pain at 20 weeks of gestation.
Mississippi would become the 13th state to enact a 20-week abortion ban since 2010, according to the nonprofit Center for Reproductive Rights, which calls such laws unconstitutional.
Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Oklahoma and Texas are among the states that have passed similar legislation.
The legislative action in Mississippi on Thursday marked the latest attempt by lawmakers there to restrict abortion access. Two years ago, they passed a law mandating that abortion clinics obtain hospital-admitting privileges for each of their providers.
The state's lone remaining clinic, Jackson Women's Health Organization in the capital city, still has not been able to comply with the law. Area hospitals either have refused to consider its applications for privileges or denied them after review.
A federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law is ongoing.
Clinic owner Diane Derzis said the proposed ban would not affect her facility because it does not perform abortions after 16 weeks.
Mississippi recorded 2,176 abortions in 2012, the latest year for which the state Department of Health made figures available. Eleven of the abortions occurred between the 16th and 20th weeks of gestation, and two after 20 weeks.
"People in Mississippi need to be demanding why they're considering legislation that has little impact on the state and is wasting taxpayer dollars," Derzis said. "This is grandstanding at its worst."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Gunna Dickson)