By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Rights groups challenged a controversial Arizona law banning most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy on Thursday, seeking to block the measure before takes effect in early August.
The law was signed by Republican Governor Jan Brewer in April, handing Republicans a win in an ongoing national drive to impose greater restrictions on abortion in a presidential election year.
The law, due to take effect August 2, would bar healthcare professionals from performing abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, except in a medical emergency. Only a small number of these abortions are performed in the state.
A lawsuit lodged by the Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union in Phoenix, asked a federal judge to put the ban on an immediate hold, arguing that it represents a "cruel and unconstitutional" affront to women.
Nancy Northup, the center's chief executive, said the new law risked women's lives and "displays a callous disregard for the complicated and very difficult circumstances many pregnant women face."
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said he would fight the lawsuit aggressively. A spokesman for Brewer could not be reached for comment.
Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, which supports the state law, said the challenges ignored serious possible health risks to women from late terminations.
"The medical evidence presented during committee hearings make it clear that abortions after 20 weeks present a much greater risk to the life of the women. There is also substantial medical evidence that preborn children can feel pain at this age," she said.
The U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortions nationwide in 1973 but allowed states to ban them from the time at which a fetus could potentially survive outside the womb, except where a woman's health was at risk.
Thursday's lawsuit, filed on behalf of three Arizona abortion providers, is thought to be the first to challenge late-term abortion bans in a growing number of states, officials from the Center for Reproductive Rights said.
Six states have laws in place banning most or all late-term abortion in the last two years, based on hotly debated medical research suggesting that a fetus feels pain starting at 20 weeks. North Carolina also has a ban.
Arizona, Georgia and Louisiana have similar bans that have not yet gone into effect, center officials said.
On Wednesday, a federal judge in Mississippi extended a restraining order that blocked a new abortion law there from being enforced. That law tightens abortion clinic requirements.
(Editing by Tim Gaynor, Cynthia Johnston and David Brunnstrom)