The Womxn Project is a statewide organization focused on leveraging the power of art, activism, advocacy and education to advance the principles of reproductive justice, which demands that we all have the right to determine when and how we build our relationships, families and futures and that we have the ability to live and raise our children with dignity.
We are proud to submit testimony in support of H.5544, which makes it unprofessional conduct for doctors to do a pelvic exam on an unconscious or anesthetized woman. This wouldn’t carry a criminal penalty, but doctors would be subject to professional discipline including possibly losing their license. The bill has exceptions allowing pelvic exams within the scope of a surgical procedure or diagnostic exam that the patient consented to, or medically necessary pelvic exams required for diagnostic purposes on an unconscious patient.
Despite widespread condemnation of the practice, performing pelvic exams on unconscious women for medical training, without explicit consent is still legal in most states. Most medical school faculty and students do not talk about it and affected patients by definition have not given consent and are therefore unaware that this is happening and that it happened to them.
Research among medical students found that the majority had given pelvic exams to gynecologic surgery patients under anesthesia and that in nearly ¾ of these cases the women had not consented to the exam. A similar study found that at least 24% of pelvic examinations performed on anesthetized patients occurred without any consent – and on many occasions more than one student examined the patient.
Of course there are medically appropriate reasons to perform a pelvic exam on an unconscious woman as part of her treatment plan. It may be needed to plan placement of a surgical instrument to remove a tumor or for diagnostic purposes. That is still permitted when this bill is passed. What would not be allowed are situations where a patient is unconscious and medical students or other physicians are invited to perform a pelvic exam not as part of treatment or diagnosis, but as a form of teaching and practice without obtaining the patient’s consent beforehand.
Some patients who have discovered they were given a pelvic while under anesthesia without being informed have been very upset that this practice is permitted. Patients with histories of sexual trauma or abuse have said they found the procedure particularly distressing. That is why there are now 10 states that require informed consent for pelvic exams. Four of those states passed their laws just in the last year.
We understand that teaching is an important part of helping students to become trained professionals. Many people would be willing to give consent and there are other options for teaching. There really is not a justification that is going to make us – or many people – comfortable with the idea of a test that requires such intimate penetration when it is not needed for the treatment of that patient and it is being done without consent.
Further, if there is indeed a concern that by asking a patient explicitly if they consent to a pelvic exam that many would refuse that only emphasizes how important it is to make sure that people do not have such a procedure performed on them without giving consent. If someone felt it would be a violation, health professionals truly need to do no harm and not perform the exam.
Respecting a person’s bodily autonomy and ensuring that they feel they are treated with respect and dignity in the midst of dealing with whatever health issue they are facing is truly the least a person can expect. We need to advance this legislation. It is common sense. It is good health policy. It is the right thing to do. Thank you for your consideration.
Contact: Barbara Colt ([email protected] or 401-400-0061)