Several U.S. state laws and regulations on abortion chip away at every woman’s right to have a safe and legal abortion, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.

The mounting obstacles to abortion services include in some states a legal requirement to provide medically inaccurate information as part of obligatory pre-abortion counseling. For example, some state regulations compel doctors and nurses to say that abortion leads to breast cancer and that fetuses feel pain throughout the pregnancy. Both claims are scientifically unfounded.

“These regulations undoubtedly are a back-door attempt to curtail women’s rights. There is a direct assault on women’s right to safe abortion through deliberate misinformation,” said Marianne Mollmann, advocacy director in Human Rights Watch’s Women’s Rights Division.

Several U.S. state laws and regulations on abortion may in fact contravene Supreme Court rulings. Since 1973, the Supreme Court has consistently held that states cannot place an “undue” regulatory burden on a woman or girl seeking to terminate her pregnancy. But some regulations do just that, notably where the law compels the mandatory imposition of false information.

States have also sought to curtail access to abortion by re-imposing criminal sanctions for the provision of services. Most prominent is the blanket ban on abortion in South Dakota, signed into law in March, and subject to a state referendum during the mid-term elections next week. South Dakota’s law makes abortion illegal except when the procedure is carried out to save the pregnant woman’s life. Several other states, including Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana and Tennessee, have moved to enact similar legislation.

“Experience shows that criminalizing abortion does not eliminate the need for it,” said Mollmann. “Criminal sanctions only push the provision of abortion services underground with potentially fatal consequences to the woman. As the United States gears up for elections, I sincerely hope no U.S. politician favors a policy option that places women’s health and lives at real risk.”

Access to abortion has also been curtailed for pregnant girls, who are subject to additional restrictions. At present, more than 20 states enforce parental consent laws, requiring consent from a parent before a minor may obtain an abortion. These consent laws have serious adverse consequences for precisely those pregnant girls who cannot rely on parental support at a time of crisis pregnancy, and fail to ensure that the best interest of the pregnant girl is central to decisions about abortion.

Federal legislators have moved to strengthen the enforcement of such parental consent laws. In July, the Senate passed the Child Custody Protection Act, a version of which had already passed as the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act in the House of Representatives in April 2005. If this law enters into force, any adult – including a guardian, grandparent, teacher or religious counselor – who helps a girl cross a state line to procure an abortion in circumvention of state parental consent or notification laws would be committing a federal crime.

“Fortunately, most pregnant teenagers who need an abortion find support in their parents,” said Mollmann. “But those who don’t find parental support need all the friends they can get,” said Mollmann. “The Child Custody Protection Act and its similarly draconian House version ignore this basic truth and leave pregnant teenagers without family support to fend for themselves.”

To read the Human Rights Watch briefing paper on the United States’ restrictions on abortion and human rights, please click here.