SAN FRANCISCO (Nexstar) — A California OB-GYN doctor is hoping to expand reproductive health care services to southern states with limited or no abortion access by offering a floating clinic on federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
Texans and residents of other southern states touching the Gulf might soon be able to access abortion and other reproductive health care services by the sea. Out of all five bordering states — Texas, Louisiana Mississippi and Alabama have either totally banned or will ban all abortions in their states. The fifth state bordering the Gulf, Florida, currently bans abortions after 15 weeks.
That’s why Dr. Meg Autry is floating the idea of a clinic-on-the-sea, which would offer first-trimester surgical abortions, contraception and other services. Autry is an OB-GYN professor at the University of California-San Francisco and a longtime advocate of reproductive health care rights.
“I’ve always been thinking of how can we come up with innovative and creative ways that will help provide patients access whose access is being taken away from them,” she said.
Autry is from the South and said she got the idea from casino boats on the Mississippi River where gambling was allowed on the water but not on land.
“The people that are hurt most hurt by this decision…are poor people, people of color, marginalized populations. And this idea is specifically to help those in a different way than the other ideas that are out there,” she said.
The proposed ship is called PRROWESS, which stands for Protecting Reproductive Rights of Women Endangered by State Statutes. Autry said she’ll need $20 million to acquire, retrofit and operate the PRROWESS for its first two years. Even if she gets the funding, some legal experts question if this is doable.
Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston, explained the reason why casino boats and cruise ships are able to offer gambling on the water and how it could apply to this proposal.
“If there’s a floating clinic at sea, in international waters, the state of Texas or Mississippi or Louisiana would not be able to prevent or regulate abortions performed there,” Blackman said. “Let’s assume that these clinics get all the federal licensing they need. They’re still not out of the woods yet. Texas has in effect, the fetal heartbeat law, SB 8.”
State law under Senate Bill 8 makes it a civil offense to facilitate or provide an abortion, by allowing private citizens to sue a provider or anyone who aids and abets in an abortion after about six weeks. Texas will soon have an outright ban under its trigger law — set to take effect on Aug. 25 — with narrow exceptions for when the life of the mother is at risk. Abortion opponents have said the two laws will work in concert together.
“If someone drives a woman from Galveston out to the Gulf somewhere — they started in Texas, they went somewhere else — that person may be liable for facilitating an abortion,” Blackman said. “I suspect this operation will be very elaborate and lots people were working together in tandem. So I think you could sue everyone, as part of a conspiracy to provide abortions outside of Texas.”
Autry said she has spent years consulting with maritime and reproductive lawyers to make sure her idea was possible in anticipation of Roe v. Wade getting overturned.
“The vessel would always stay in federal waters … there are no laws that are criminalizing patients. And so the only the worry then is someone else helping patients. And so we were looking extensively at that,” she said of SB 8.
Autry said they are in the beginning phase of fundraising for the vessel and is anticipating legal and security issues as she moves forward with this project.
Monica Madden will have a full report on this story on KXAN News at 6 p.m.