By Verna Gates and Melinda Dickinson
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - Alabama lawmakers on Tuesday approved a bill that would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is heard, which will almost guarantee a legal challenge from opponents.
The measure passed by a vote of 73-29, according to State Rep. Paul Lee, a Republican, who spoke to Reuters from the House floor. The bill, along with three other abortion restriction bills, now goes to the Senate.
No other state has such a law in effect. Efforts by legislators in North Dakota and Arkansas to prohibit abortions after the detection of a heartbeat have been blocked by courts while lawsuits are pending.
The sponsor of the Alabama measure, Republican state Representative Mary Sue McClurkin, said it was needed to protect the lives of unborn children.
"If your heart is beating, that means you are alive," she said during a recent committee hearing.
Critics of the legislation say a fetal heartbeat can be detected as early as five or six weeks into a pregnancy, which is before many women even realize they are pregnant.
The proposed abortion restriction is "blatantly" unconstitutional, said Jennifer Dalven, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Reproductive Freedom Project.
"It would be the most extreme law by far in the country," Dalven said in an interview.
Alabama lawmakers on Tuesday also voted to lengthen the current waiting period before an abortion can be performed to 48 hours from 24 hours.
The House also passed a bill that calls for at least a 48-hour wait for a woman who learns her fetus has a lethal condition and will not survive outside of the womb. Under the proposal, she would be required to learn about perinatal hospice options.
She would have to sign a waiver testifying that she opted for the abortion over hospice care.
"This is a cruel bill," said Nikema Williams, vice president of public policy for Planned Parenthood Southeast. She said there are no such perinatal hospice services in Alabama.
The fourth measure would add new requirements for pregnant minors seeking an abortion. In instances where a young woman seeks permission from a judge instead of a parent, the bill would allow parents to participate in the proceedings, even in cases where there may have been parental abuse, Dalven said.
The proposals follow a law passed in Alabama last year that requires abortion clinics to meet surgical center standards by March 24, a move that critics say threatens to shutter three of Alabama's five remaining abortion clinics.
(Reporting by Verna Gates and Melinda Dickinson; Additional reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Tom Brown, Mary Wisniewski and Ken Wills)