As the right to abortion is removed in several states in the United States, some obstetricians, abortion rights advocates and others are focusing on how to make abortion accessible and safe for those who live in states where the procedure is restricted or prohibited. The situation has led to outside-the-box thinking, including, most recently, an obstetrician-gynecologist’s plans to provide abortions on a ship in federal waters.
It’s the brainchild of Dr. Meg Autry, obstetrician-gynecologist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who founded the non-profit project PROROWESS, which stands for Protecting Reproductive Rights of Women Endangered by State Statutes. Autry is currently raising the $20 million needed to secure a ship that would be upgraded to serve as a floating reproductive health clinic with volunteer providers, offering low-cost or free surgical abortions for up to 14 weeks as well as contraceptives, testing and treatments for sexually transmitted diseases. infections and vaccines.
Autry, who has been an obstetrician-gynecologist and reproductive health care provider for more than 30 years and is an army veteran, says she is no stranger to anti-abortion sentiments and has seen that the country was moving towards Roe vs. Wade being overthrown. “The rights have been gradually eroded over the years,” she told Yahoo Life. “Then the Dobbs decision came out and it’s like, ‘What’s going on.’ Even then, there was a silver lining – you kept thinking in your mind that this couldn’t be true. And when it hit, it was devastating.
However, Autry came up with the idea for a floating clinic long before deer was overthrown. “That’s not one of my recent thoughts,” she said. “I’ve had it for years. I grew up in the South. I was very aware of this erosion of rights. I was always trying to think of what innovative ways can we provide health care to people whose bodily autonomy is at risk? »
Originally, she had her eye on a floating clinic on the Mississippi River. “There must be something about these boat casinos in the water that is different from land,” she says, referring to river casinos that stay at least 3 to 12 miles offshore to circumvent restrictions. state game. “So [the TV show] ozark had a similar thing. You see – other people think that too, I thought.”
Autry recruited a legal team, working with a reproductive health lawyer from the nonprofit The Lawyering Project, as well as maritime lawyers and a maritime consultant. Ultimately, Autry and his team abandoned the Mississippi River idea. “We just weren’t going to be able to serve the number of people we wanted and it didn’t make any practical sense,” she says.
Instead, Autry and his team settled on the Gulf Coast — a southern coast that includes Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. With the exception of Florida, these coastal states have either “banned abortion or have very restrictive laws,” she says.
These states are also farther from states where abortion is accessible and legal, making an offshore clinic a more feasible option geographically. “If you’re rich in our country, you can get what you want, when you want it,” Autry says. “Rich people will go elsewhere and you can get a medical abortion through the mail. [The floating clinic is] really for those most affected.
She adds, “So if you look at the map, there are networks in place that will allow people in the restricted states to get into the states and they pay for their accommodation and the procedure. But if you look at the southernmost part, like Texas and Louisiana, you can’t get to a 24-hour access state. If you are poor, a single parent, sole caregiver”, a floating clinic may be the closest and most affordable option for those without free time, childcare or the financial means to travel far, she points out. out.
While the idea of abortions at sea will no doubt raise some eyebrows, PROROWESS isn’t the first organization to focus on providing abortion care overseas. The Dutch organization Women on Waves – founded in 1999 by Dr Rebecca Gomperts – has traveled to several different countries where abortion is illegal to provide these services.
So what does maritime law say about abortions at sea? “Maritime law, by its own strength, does not speak to abortions performed at sea,” Matthew Steffey, a law professor at Mississippi College specializing in maritime law, told Yahoo Life. “In theory, a maritime treaty could cover the subject, but I don’t know of any that would. Assuming the vessel is outside the state’s territorial waters, a state’s laws would not apply. Outside waters controlled by a state or nation, the flag of the ship determines the source of the law. Thus, the laws of the ship’s country of origin apply.
This does not mean that there are no risks. While Steffey adds that it’s “entirely possible” that an “aggressive” district attorney could “seek to bring charges against someone traveling from their jurisdiction to an offshore abortion provider,” he points out. that “there is a very good chance that these charges will ultimately be dismissed as violating the US Constitution. Otherwise, a local DA could prosecute anyone for lawful conduct in the state where the conduct occurred – such as cannabis use, gambling, etc. – once they return home.
That said, Steffey notes that “someone operating a tender vessel to transport patients from shore to shore would be taking great legal risk, as they would be operating within the state.”
Autry is unwilling to share details of exactly how patients would be transported from shore to the ship for safety reasons, but she says: ‘What worries us most are the patients. Our plan is that our ship, supplier and crew will never hit a restricted state. But obviously, patients have to make it happen.
This is one of the many logistical problems that abortion providers and abortion rights advocates currently face. “Abortion providers, policy makers and so many others across the country are dedicated to finding ways to ensure people can get the care they need,” said Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for reproductive health and rights at the National Women’s Law Center, Yahoo Life. “But the court’s decision has sparked legal chaos, and as more states ban abortion, we face a host of unfamiliar questions about criminal liability, oversight, and potential prosecution.”
Borchelt adds, “We are all navigating a dangerous, appalling and rapidly changing landscape to help people get care that should be legal, affordable and available, but is instead criminalized.”
Since going public with her project, Autry shares that many people in the medical and legal world have “really stepped up” to help. “I just think there’s a ton of people doing creative and innovative things because they care deeply about bodily access and autonomy,” she says. “As we have a lot of creative ideas to help people, the more the better. The sole purpose of this is to provide care to people who potentially have no other options.
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