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The Movement To Ban Non-Consensual Pelvic Exams

Dr. Lisa Lawless

Dr. Lisa Lawless, CEO of Holistic Wisdom
Clinical Psychotherapist: Relationship & Sexual Health Expert

Speculums On Medical Table

What Are Non-Consensual Pelvic Exams?

Imagine you visit the hospital with pain in your abdomen, and, without your knowledge or consent, a student physician administers a vaginal exam while you lay sedated on the examination table. Unbeknownst to you, this scenario could be a reality and legal in your state.

What Are Pelvic Exams?

Pelvic exams aid in detecting cancers and infections and evaluating reproductive health and are a comprehensive and vital tool for maintaining one's overall well-being. Anyone with a vulva can tell you the sensitive nature of a pelvic exam and it most certainly calls for the utmost professionalism. Naturally, these exams should be conducted while the patient is fully awake and has provided consent and yet that does not always happen.

What's The Problem?

It is still legal in many states for pelvic exams to be regularly performed on patients while unconscious without their knowledge or consent, even if it is not related to why they are being treated.

Women's Stories

In 2020, the New York Times ran a story titled She Didn't Want a Pelvic Exam. She Received One Anyway, where stories of these incidents were shared. For example, a 37-year-old mother in Utah who had gone to the ER and was sedated for treatment of nausea and vomiting, only to wake up to a doctor performing an invasive exam on her without having given consent.

In 2017, an Arizona nurse had a shocking realization while recovering from stomach surgery in the hospital. Despite her explicit request to her attending physician, stating that she did not want medical students being involved in her procedure, she awoke to discover that a resident had performed a pelvic exam on her while she was still under anesthesia.

Alarming Surveys

The University of Oklahoma conducted a series of surveys that revealed an alarmingly high number of medical students who have undertaken pelvic exams on unconscious patients. In 3 out of 4 cases, no informed consent was obtained. These findings paint a disturbing picture of medical ethics and raise serious questions about the oversight of medical training.

In 2019, ELLE magazine surveyed seven prominent medical institutions in the United States. They found that out of the 101 medical students surveyed, 92% admitted to performing such exams on unconscious female patients without obtaining clear, informed consent. A distressing 61% of these students reported lacking explicit permission from their patients before the procedure.

These results raise serious questions about the ethics of medical practice and the responsibility of healthcare providers to respect the autonomy and dignity of their patients.

Racial & Socioeconomic Disparities

In the surveys conducted at the University of Oklahoma, it was also determined that medical students were more likely to perform exams on uninsured patients.

According to data from the United States Census Bureau, as of 2019, America remains marred by stark disparities along racial lines. While only 7.5% of non-Hispanic White Americans go uninsured, Hispanic counterparts are twice that amount, with 14.6% lacking coverage and African Americans hovering at 10.5%.

The uninsured rate is almost 1 in 4 among those grappling with poverty, while the privileged few earning 400% or more of the federal poverty line enjoy a comparatively low 4.3% uninsured rate.

Thus, the non-consensual pelvic floor exams occur at a much higher frequency for those who belong to marginalized communities, particularly individuals who identify as people of color or who live below the poverty line.

This unjust disparity highlights one of many of the systemic biases within the medical field, leading to a traumatic and oppressive experiences for those already marginalized and vulnerable. The need for immediate action to address and rectify this issue cannot be overstated.

Banning Non-Consensual Pelvic Exams

In 2018, Phoebe Friesen, a renowned biomedical ethicist from McGill University, sparked a crucial debate with her thought-provoking articles in Bioethics and Slate. These articles prompted numerous women to come forward with their own stories, using the hashtag #MeTooPelvic to voice their experiences on social media.

It should be no surprise that every single woman interviewed about this voiced their strong preference for being asked for their consent before their pelvis is utilized as an educational tool. Many stated that they would consider such a situation an assault if they were not consulted beforehand.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of the situation, most of these women are not even aware that their bodies have been used in this manner. This does not even begin to address what may be happening for transgender women who have received a vaginoplasty which has not been covered in the media at all.


The Movement To End Non-Consensual Pelvic Exams

As of May 2022, a growing number of states have taken decisive action by banning the practice, with bills being introduced in others to follow suit. However, despite periodic spikes of public interest in the issue, it often fizzles out.

To shed light on the issue, Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor at the University of Illinois specializing in medical ethics, conducted a thorough investigation for the Federal Trade Commission. While opponents argue that general consent forms are enough, advocates push for express consent to be required for intimate exams, such as pelvic exams, that are performed solely for educational purposes.

Professional organizations agree that it is an ethical imperative to obtain express consent before conducting intimate exams, as using unconsenting patients for procedures that don't benefit them is widely considered to be wrong.


The Status Of Your State In 2023

As of 2023 the Epstein program shows on their maps that 21 states have made the practice illegal, including New York, Maryland, Utah, Washington, Delaware, Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire, Arkansas, Arizona, Texas, Nevada, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

Other states, such as California, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Oregon, and Virginia, have also taken steps to regulate the practice, demonstrating a growing trend toward protecting patients' rights and autonomy.

In Closing

The alarming reality of non-consensual pelvic exams, where patients are subjected to invasive procedures without their knowledge or consent, is a problematic issue that continues to exist in many states across the United States. It is a violation of rights and can be traumatic to anyone who experiences it.

This unethical practice, often conducted on unconscious patients, raises serious questions about medical ethics and healthcare providers' responsibility to respect their patient's autonomy and dignity, and we must end it now.

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