By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Most abortions in Georgia would be prohibited if the fetus is more than 20 weeks old under a bill passed by the state legislature that now awaits the signature of Republican Governor Nathan Deal, authorities said on Friday.
Georgia already prohibits most abortions starting in the third trimester. But lawmakers backed tighter restrictions in the bill approved on Thursday night, moving to join six other states in banning abortions at 20 weeks, in the second trimester.
"This will save 1,000 to 1,200 babies a year," said the bill's sponsor, Representative Doug McKillip.
He said the new limit was based on assertions, considered spurious by some reproductive health experts, that a fetus can feel pain after 20 weeks' gestation.
The legislation allows for exceptions to save the life of the mother and if the fetus has extreme defects that make survival unlikely, said McKillip.
"If it is clear that the child is to pass away after birth, there are exceptions," said the legislator. Under existing Georgia law, there are so many loopholes that abortions can be performed as late as nine months into a pregnancy, said McKillip.
Georgia Right to Life, which opposes abortion, called the new legislation "a step in the right direction" but expressed disappointment at the exemption for "medically futile" pregnancies in which the fetus is likely to die after birth.
"The futile pregnancy exception leaves the door open to destroy a whole class of babies a doctor decides may be less than perfect," Georgia Right to Life President Dan Becker said in a statement. "That's not who we should be as a society."
The Southeastern office of Planned Parenthood was also highly critical of the bill, saying it "reflects an agenda to limit women's access to health care."
The bill "calls into question every woman who makes a deeply personal, private medical decision," the organization said in a statement.
Brian Robinson, a spokesman for the governor, said the Deal would review the bill in due course.
(Editing by Tom Brown and Paul Thomasch)