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Doctor proposes floating abortion clinic in Gulf of Mexico to avoid bans

A large crowd marches during a University of Minnesota student-led protest in Minneapolis after the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade on June 24. (Renee Jones Schneider/Star Tribune/AP)

Along the Gulf Coast, abortion rights have become severely restricted in recent weeks, with states rushing to enact bans on all or most procedures after the fall of Roe v. Wade.

Meg Autry, an obstetrician and gynecologist and a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, has an idea to preserve access to the procedure: a floating clinic. She and a team of other health-care providers would offer surgical abortions and other reproductive health services aboard a ship in federal Gulf Coast waters. It would be outside state jurisdiction, yet closer than other states where the procedure is protected.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Autry called it “an option for patients who don’t have other options.”

She said she has been mulling the concept for several years as abortion rights eroded. She consulted with lawyers and incorporated a nonprofit called PRROWESS, or Protecting Reproductive Rights of Women Endangered by State Statutes.

Abortion is now banned in these states. See where laws have changed.

The effort became more urgent when the conservative justices became the majority on the Supreme Court, and then even more urgent when the court decision came down last month, ending the nationwide right to an abortion in place since the landmark Roe ruling in 1973.

“When the decision became final, we said, ‘We need to capitalize on this moment. This is now a reality,’ ” Autry said.

A Dutch organization, Women on Waves, has taken a similar approach. The group, created by physician Rebecca Gomperts, provides medication abortions in international waters off the coasts of countries that restrict the procedure. Its abortion ships have sailed in previous years to Mexico, Guatemala, Poland, Morocco, Spain and Ireland.

Now the United States is among countries where abortion bans are in effect. Nationwide access has given way to a patchwork of restrictions since the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision, with 16 states banning or mostly banning the procedure and three more expected to do so imminently. An additional three are likely to implement bans.

Southern states are among the most restrictive. Laws banning abortions are on the books in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee. Florida prohibits the procedure after 15 weeks, and Georgia has a six-week ban pending in the courts.

For residents of those states, accessing an abortion requires travel to one of 20 states or D.C., where it remains legal. That can involve significant costs and time away from home, family and work. A floating clinic, Autry said, would be “closer and quicker.”

“The biggest thing behind this idea really is that wealthy people in our country will be able to get the services that they want,” she said, adding: “The people that are impacted by these practices are poor people, people of color, marginalized communities.”

Depending on the size of the vessel, the clinic could serve at least 20 patients per day, Autry said. The goal would be to offer care at little or no cost to the patient. Services would include surgical abortion up to 14 weeks, contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections.

It is “a huge venture” expected to cost about $20 million to get up and running, Autry said. Her nonprofit has begun collecting donations, and while she declined to provide a figure, she said the response has been “phenomenal.”

“This is something that most of the country doesn’t believe in,” she said of the Supreme Court’s decision, “so we have to be creative.”

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

Roe v. Wade overturned: The Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.

State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.

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