Lawmakers React To Report of Widespread Non-Consensual Pelvic Exams

Photographed by Megan Madden.
Medical professionals and legislators are demanding accountability after a report by The New York Times found that medical schools and students were performing pelvic exams on unconscious patients without consent. In an article published this week, the newspaper interviewed sources who confirmed that the practice is happening at medical institutions across the nation. Disturbingly, the majority of states don’t have laws requiring physicians to get explicit consent for these procedures. 
The Times article stated that doctors and med students have performed unauthorized exams while women who were under anesthesia for various procedures — some of them gynecological, others not. The non-consensual exams were especially haunting for women who’d experienced sexual trauma, abuse, or assault in the past. 
Some of the pelvic exams The Times reported on were performed for what was ostensibly a medical reason — because the patient was overdue or because it was suspected that an STD was causing negative symptoms, for example. Other exams were performed to educate med students and trainees.
It's actually "fairly common" for medical students to practice performing pelvic exams on anesthetized patients in teaching hospitals, according to New York Magazine. Trainees can more easily examine and identify reproductive organs if a patient is unconscious. But all patients who have these exams should have “explicitly consented” prior, according to the Association of Professors of Gynecology and Obstetrics. Most people who reacted to the troubling report on Twitter believed performing the procedures without a patient's permission was reprehensible.
The Times reported that there were no numbers to indicate how widespread the practice is in the U.S., but there's reason to believe it's common. One 2003 study of 401 students at five medical schools in Pennsylvania found that 90 percent had performed an unconscious vaginal exam on a patient. The researchers didn't look into how many obtained explicit consent beforehand. But they did find that students who'd completed a gynecology clerkship thought consent was less important than those who hadn't.
After The Times published their report, some medical organizations called for more answers and accountability. The Physicians for Human Rights tweeted: “Informed consent is the clinician’s responsibility and the patient’s right.” 
Lauren Book, a state senator in Florida who has spent years fighting for the rights of sexual abuse victims, proposed an informed consent law regarding pelvic exams as part of a reproductive health bill that was introduced in January. The day after the Times report was published, the bill passed unanimously in the state senate. If codified, it would make Florida the 11th state to have banned doctors from doing unauthorized pelvic exams.
“One of the things that is most troubling as a survivor of sexual assault and as somebody that’s a woman — putting aside the sexual assault — you have no ability to have a voice when you’re unconscious to say yes or no,” Book said, according to the Treasure Coast Palm newspaper. “I understand medical students need to learn. They should do it on a conscious individual, or ask before someone is unconscious.”

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