By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The Idaho Senate on Wednesday approved a measure that would ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and subject abortion providers who violate the ban to criminal prosecution and lawsuits.
The bill now heads to the state House of Representatives, where passage is expected. And a representative with the National Right to Life Committee, which is behind the legislation, predicted the ban will find favor with Idaho's Republican governor.
The legislation is patterned after a law adopted last year in Nebraska and is pinned to some medical research suggesting a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks.
The measure is part of a broader push this year by National Right to Life to tighten restrictions on abortion in many states after conservatives gained legislative and gubernatorial seats in elections last November.
Idaho is one of 17 states considering bills that would outlaw abortion after 20 weeks of gestation unless it could be proved the pregnancy endangered the woman's life.
The debate over abortion in Idaho comes after South Dakota's governor on Tuesday signed into law the longest abortion waiting period in the nation at three days.
Abortion rights groups such as Planned Parenthood Federation of America say the South Dakota law and measures such as the one in Idaho constitute attacks on Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court decision in 1973 legalized abortion but allowed states to ban abortion after viability unless it risked the woman's health.
'WAKE UP AND PAY ATTENTION'
"Women around the country need to wake up and pay attention to what's happening in state legislatures," said Elizabeth Nash, who tracks abortion polices for the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights think tank.
Mary Spaulding Balch with the National Right to Life Committee said abortion foes seek to return the focus to the fetus.
"What we're hoping to do is keep the unborn child in the debate," Balch said. "We want to use legislation in as many ways as possible to talk about the humanity of the unborn child. This is a debate that the American people need to participate in."
The bill would make it a felony to violate the 20-week ban and open violators to lawsuits by the woman and the unborn's father. It also would allow others -- a spouse, relatives, other doctors - to file legal injunctions against abortion providers who break the ban.
Idaho Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder on Wednesday urged support for the bill he is sponsoring on behalf of Idaho Right to Life.
"This is not an effort to challenge Roe v. Wade; this is to take a bite out of the apple," the Boise Republican said.
Opponents, mostly Democrats in the minority, argued that an opinion by Idaho's attorney general suggested the legislation wouldn't pass legal muster and would cost the state dearly to defend.
The number of abortions in Idaho and in the nation has been growing over the past decade, according to figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
According to the state, out of 1,650 abortions performed in 2009 in Idaho, only 14 involved pregnancies at 16 to 20 weeks.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Greg McCune)