Louisiana became the first American state to outlaw a late-term abortion procedure on Friday, when the governor approved legislation allowing doctors to be prosecuted for performing the surgery.
The new law allows so-called "partial birth" abortions in only one situation: when failure to perform it would endanger the mother's life. The procedure would be a crime in all other cases, even if the pregnancy is expected to cause health problems for the mother.
Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed into law criminal penalties for doctors who perform the surgery: fines of between $1,000 and $10,000, and jail terms of between one and 10 years.
The statute is parallel to a federal ban that President George W. Bush signed into law in 2003, which was upheld in April by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lawmakers in other states are expected to consider similar bans. Louisiana is the first to enact one.
Unlike in many developed countries, where abortion is considered a medical procedure beyond the reach of politics, it remains among the most politically sensitive subjects in the United States, and is likely to be a hotly debated issue through the campaign to the November 2008 U.S. presidential election, especially by conservative Republicans.
The procedure is the subject of angry debate between anti-abortion groups, who support state bans, and abortion-rights groups, who opposed the federal ban and have fought state bans, including the Louisiana legislation.
Planned Parenthood officials argued against the Louisiana ban in legislative committee hearings, but received a chilly response from lawmakers. Only a handful of legislators voted against either bill.
Anti-abortion activists call the procedure "partial-birth abortion;" surgeons and abortion rights activists call it "dilation and extraction." It involves partially removing the fetus intact from a woman's uterus, then crushing or cutting its skull to complete the abortion.
Blanco has also signed legislation requiring that all women seeking an abortion be notified that fetuses can feel pain by 20 weeks gestation, and doctors who perform the procedure to discuss the availability of painkillers for fetuses.
Supporters said the bill would provide important information to women seeking abortions — and that it could help stop abortions. Opponents say doctors do not agree on whether fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks.
Nationwide, there are just a few thousand such abortions, according to rough estimates, out of more than 1.25 million abortions in the United States annually. Ninety percent of all abortions occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and are not at issue.