LAS VEGAS — Following a national trend of new get-tough abortion legislation, Arizona has passed a law that severely restricts the procedure, banning most abortions after 20 weeks — setting the stage for another showdown between social conservatives and women's rights groups.
With GOP Gov. Jan Brewer's signature on the Republication-sponsored legislation, Arizona took a stand on an issue that could become fodder during this year's presidential campaign. Proponents say the law protects fetuses, which they say can feel pain after five months of development.
The new law "strengthens Arizona's laws protecting the health and safety of women, and recognizes the precious life of the preborn baby," Brewer said in a statement.
Arizona's law follows similarly strict actions passed by two other politically conservative states. In February, the Virginia Legislature passed a bill requiring women to have a transvaginal ultrasound before they may have an abortion, a requirement critics said violated a woman's rights. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell ultimately rejected the mandatory transvaginal procedure.
In Mississippi, where abortion laws are already among the nation's strictest, conservative lawmakers have passed a bill — still awaiting the signature of the Republican governor — that would shut down the state's only clinic providing the procedure. Critics say the law would force many poor women into seeking risky illegal abortions.
In 2011, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina and Oklahoma enacted 20-week bans. Nebraska passed similar legislation in 2010.
Abortion rights groups have blasted Arizona's law as reckless overreach by conservative lawmakers. "Politicians should not be involved in a woman's personal medical decisions about her pregnancy," Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement. "It is important that abortion remains a safe and legal medical procedure for a woman to consider if and when she needs it."
The new Arizona law also requires state officials to host a website with images of fetuses at various stages of development for women to view. Proponents said the 20-week abortion ban would not apply in medical emergencies.
Critics say the law endangers the health of both mother and fetus. Women at risk of pregnancy complications "will be forced to decide whether to proceed with their pregnancies in the dark, before they have all the information they need to arrive at their choices," the advocacy group Center for Reproductive Rights said in a statement.
Arizona legislators are also pursuing a bill to allow employers to refuse health insurance coverage of birth control for religious reasons.
Planned Parenthood warned that pregnant Arizona residents could now face the same crisis as a Nebraska woman they said was forced to continue a pregnancy even after a health crisis meant she was going to lose the baby.
The woman, Danielle Deaver, was forced to deliver a baby she knew would die minutes after birth, because her doctors feared prosecution under Nebraska's 20-week abortion ban, the group said.
Deaver later wrote a letter of appeal to Brewer. "Because lawmakers in my home state of Nebraska passed this sweeping abortion ban, my family's personal loss a year and a half ago became a nightmare," she wrote, according to Planned Parenthood.
"That my pregnancy ended, that choice was made by God. How to handle the end of my pregnancy, that should have been private. But the decision that should have remained mine and my husband's at a very difficult time was decided for us — and it was decided by politicians we'd never met."
Abortion foes say Deaver's case was an anomaly. "What happened to Danielle Deaver was a tragic thing, and I'm not a doctor who can say what should have happened there," said Ingrid Duran, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Right to Life Committee. "But the Nebraska bill has a carefully crafted medical emergency clause.
"These laws, including the one passed in Arizona, recognize that unborn children at 20 weeks of age feel pain and we have a responsibility to protect them under law."
Matthew Benson, a spokesman for Brewer, said that Arizona's law previously forbade abortions once a fetus was viable outside the uterus, a term he described as between 22 to 24 weeks. "This law has bumped that deadline up to 20 weeks," he said.
Benson said he wasn't sure whether the new law would become fodder for the presidential race. "It's safe to say that abortion frequently comes into play in every election, so I wouldn't be surprised at all."