Republican lawmakers are attempting to outlaw abortions after 20 weeks in Minnesota, echoing identical efforts by new GOP majorities across the country to curb abortion rights.

The legislation, introduced in the House and Senate on Monday, would pose a direct challenge to existing laws protecting abortion and would likely face a weighty court challenge if enacted.

The proposal is modeled after a first-in-the-nation law adopted last year in Nebraska that bans abortions after five months because that, supporters contend, is when developing fetuses feel pain. Opponents say there is no conclusive proof of that.

"This bill will finally protect unborn children at 20 weeks and older from the torturous pain of abortion," said Scott Fischbach, executive director of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. Minnesota is one of at least seven states considering nearly identical 20-week bans.

This November's elections swept in a wave of anti-abortion lawmakers, reigniting an emotional debate that has often divided the Legislature in the past. A separate measure to block state funding of abortion for poor women also awaits legislative action.

Fewer than 2 percent of the 12,386 abortions performed in Minnesota in 2009 involved fetuses older than 20 weeks, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota said those cases often involve fetuses with fatal medical conditions.

"This ban is a cruel attempt by anti-choice forces to curb access to care for women in the most desperate of circumstances," said NARAL executive director Linnea House.

"If it's only 2 percent then the other side of the argument really shouldn't have a whole lot to worry about," said Sen. Warren Limmer, a bill co-sponsor. He noted that the bill makes an exception only for women who would risk death or serious physical harm by carrying the pregnancy to term.

The measure also says women who would suffer from "psychological or emotional conditions" do not fit under that exception. NARAL also noted that the bill makes no exception for women who are victims of rape or incest.

Both House Speaker Kurt Zellers and House Majority Leader Matt Dean are co-sponsors of the fetal pain bill, along with House Ways and Means Chairwoman Mary Liz Holberg. Zellers and Dean's power may move the measure in the Legislature, but it cannot move DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, the first governor to address an annual abortion-rights rally at the Capitol.

"I assure you that nothing as extreme that violates that basic fundamental right -- and it is a Constitutional right as established by the United States Supreme Court -- will be enacted with my signature," Dayton told the gathering last month. "It will not happen here in Minnesota."

But a gubernatorial veto might not be the end of the measure.

If the Republican majorities in the House and Senate draw in those DFLers who oppose abortion, they could override a gubernatorial veto.

Abortion opponents will have procedural help with the measure as well. On the House floor, Zellers oversees the debate. On the Senate floor, Sen. Michelle Fischbach does the job. She is married to Scott Fischbach, the executive director of the MCCL.

Science is debated

The debate over whether fetuses feel pain early in gestation, long a tenet of abortion opponents, is heated and unresolved. According to a controversial 2005 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, fetuses are unlikely to feel pain "before the third trimester" but abortion foes cite other studies they say disproves that.

Nebraska passed its 20-week ban last year, and Kansas and other states appear on track to follow suit. Although opponents say those measures are unconstitutional, they have yet to challenge them in court.

The Minnesota legislation addresses the possibility of a legal challenge. Any lawsuits would be sent directly to the Minnesota Supreme Court and the bill sets up a special fund to cover the costs of defending the law, should it pass.

The debate over fetal pain also has a Minnesota history. In 2005, the Legislature passed and the governor signed a law that requires women be offered pain medication for their fetuses if their fetuses are 20 weeks or older.

A law passed a few years earlier required abortion providers to offer women specific information before undergoing the procedure. That information includes a booklet that says: "Some experts have concluded the unborn child feels physical pain after 20 weeks gestation. Other experts have concluded pain is felt later in gestational development. This issue may need further study."

Eric Roper • 651-222-1210 Rachel E. Stassen-Berger •