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Medical Tourism In Action: A Floating Abortion Clinic

The sign on a Planned Parenthood building

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, changes are rapidly evolving. Several states, some that had already passed laws opposing abortion, are changing policies. Others are making access to abortion easier through legislation. Regardless of which side of the issue one falls, it’s evident that the Court’s ruling is having major effects. And one of the most noted ones involves medical tourism for abortion. While this was an expected development as word leaked of the Court’s opinion, the magnitude is impressive. And some medical tourism ideas are quite creative and inventive.

(Read more about the concept of medical tourism in this Bold deep-dive!)

One of the most interesting ideas regarding medical tourism for abortion involves federal waters in the Gulf. Once outside immediate state coastal waters, ships could potentially serve as floating clinics outside a state’s legal domain. Such enterprises would allow easier access to abortion for those in some of the most restrictive states. While there’s more to it than simply hopping on boat, the idea is an intriguing one. And it only one among many that are exploring various ways that medical tourism for abortion might be used.

“We have to create options and be thoughtful and creative to help people in restrictive states get the health care they deserve.” – Dr. Meg Autry, Board-certified Obstetrician/Gynecologist, UCSF/Mount Zion Women’s Health Center

Launching the PRROWESS

Advocacy groups for women’s rights and choice have become increasingly vocal in recent weeks. But for Dr. Meg Autry, she has been a longtime supporter of these issues throughout her career. As an experienced obstetrician at the University of California in San Francisco, she has promoted women’s health for years. And now, she plans to expand her efforts through her nonprofit known as Protecting Reproductive Rights of Women Endangered by State Statutes (PRROWESS) group. PROWESS will be the sponsoring organization for a floating ship in the Gulf of Mexico offering medical tourism for abortion.  The mission is to offer access to abortion to women in Southern states that may otherwise lack such services.

PRROWESS plans to maintain a distance of 9 nautical miles offshore in an effort to function beyond state jurisdictions. States like Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi have already banned abortions after 6 weeks gestation or so. However, Dr. Autry hopes to provide access to abortion as late as 14 weeks in her offshore clinics. Accessing the Gulf waters may be easier for women in these states when compared traveling to other states or regions. Therefore, PRROWESS could offer a creative opportunity for medical tourism for abortion in these states.

“…In Texas, we have a lot of medical tourism or medical commerce. And we have had that for years. And so going to pharmacies or even to a dentist or doctor in a Mexican border city is really very common.” – Dianne Solis, Press Reporter covering immigration topics, Dallas Morning News

Alternatives for Medical Tourism for Abortion

For women in Texas and adjacent states, access to abortion via a floating clinic might be feasible. But that is not the case in other regions of the country. Several states, such as Idaho, have passed restrictive abortion laws as well. In these instances, women are turning to adjacent states that offer such services as possible alternatives. New Jersey, for example, is actively recruiting patients from other states looking for medical tourism for abortion options. In fact, they are even offering legal protections in such instances. Others are traveling across the border to Mexico for abortion medications and services. Recent reports actually suggest that medical tourism for abortion has risen 10-fold in recent weeks.

The inside of an operating room
Medical tourism means that those without easy access to abortion are going to shop around to where they can get it.

Notably, these are alternative options for the access to abortion for some women. But that doesn’t mean it’s as simple as traveling to another state or taking a medical cruise. Some states have included what is known as “bounty hunter” clauses in their abortion legislation. These clauses empower regular citizens to identify someone aiding and abetting abortion services, even those helping someone leave the state. In fact, some laws even allow these same citizens to file lawsuits against these accomplices in court. This is why states like New Jersey are trying to boost medical tourism for abortion by offering legal protection. But whether such protections will hold up remains unclear.

“…We recognize that decisions [about abortion] involving health and families are deeply personal and made with thoughtful consideration. We are making this decision so our teammates can access the same healthcare options, regardless of where they live, and choose what is best for them.” – Lauren Hobart, CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods

Business Support for Medical Tourism

While the political and legal landscape is still evolving, it is evident that many businesses are supporting medical tourism. Understanding the issue surrounding access to abortion is a personal one, corporations aren’t necessarily taking a position. Instead, many are simply ensuring their employees receive the support they need in getting quality healthcare services. In some cases, this includes access to abortion services when travel is required. Whether looking to travel to a nearby state or a floating clinic in the Gulf, many businesses are stepping up.

In total, more than 50 corporations have offered support, financial and otherwise, for medical tourism for abortion. From Airbnb to Zillow, policy statements have been made committing help those in need have access to abortion services. For Dick’s Sporting Goods, they have promised $4,000 to cover travel expenses to the nearest location of these services. Amazon similarly will provide the same amount for non-life-threatening medical care. Disney is another company who has also promised to make sure their staff receives affordable, safe and comprehensive care. Based on this, it’s clear that medical tourism for abortion will likely thrive in the coming months.

The Start of Something Bigger?

Prior to the pandemic, telehealth was touted as a new technology to enhance healthcare access and to lower costs. But it wasn’t until lockdowns and quarantines forced the industry’s hand that telehealth was more fully embraced. This raises the question as to whether Roe v. Wade might represent a similar catalyst for state-to-state medical tourism. If advantages of medical tourism for abortion becomes evident, consumers might start exploring healthcare options further. Access to abortion may therefore usher in greater access to other services at lower costs. Of course, it’s too early to tell, but the possibilities are intriguing. For now, creativity lies within those exploring floating ships and protective legislation. But in the future, innovation in medical tourism between states might explore much broader opportunities.


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