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Arkansas House approves bill banning abortions at 20 weeks

By Suzi Parker

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) - The Republican-controlled Arkansas House of Representatives approved a bill on Thursday to ban abortions at 20 weeks into a pregnancy and a separate measure that, if it becomes law, would be the stiffest abortion restriction in the country.

Lawmakers voted 80-10 to pass the 20-week legislation that would only allow exceptions in the case of rape, incest or to save the mother's life.

The 20-week ban was sent to Governor Mike Beebe, a Democrat who has said he has constitutional issues with the legislation but has not said if he will veto it.

Matt DeCample, a Beebe spokesman, said the governor will decide next week whether he will sign the legislation into law.

The bill, which shortens the existing limit of 25 weeks, does not include an exemption for any lethal fetal disorders.

Abortion right activists condemned the vote.

"Any bill that restricts access to safe abortion is bad for women in Arkansas," said Murry Newbern, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland.

"Every woman's health care needs are different, and it's vital that a woman be able to make her own personal, private decisions about her health and medical care with the consultation of her doctor, her faith and her family," she said.

Seven U.S. states have laws that restrict or ban abortion after the 20-week mark and similar laws approved in Arizona and Georgia are facing legal challenges.

Late-term abortions remain relatively rare. Most of the recent state laws banning most abortions after 20 weeks are based on hotly debated medical research suggesting a fetus feels pain starting at 20 weeks of gestation.

Lawmakers also passed a bill that would be the most stringent abortion restriction in the country if it becomes law, according to abortion rights activists. In a 68-20 vote, they approved a bill prohibiting most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy if a fetal heartbeat is detected.

In January, the Arkansas state Senate approved a previous version of the bill, which was amended to include exemptions for highly lethal fetal disorders. The bill now returns to the Senate for final passage.

(Editing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Todd Eastham)

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