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Adrienne Lawrence

Legal analyst, law professor & award-winning author

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Opinion

Why are non-consensual pelvic exams still happening?

Apr 17

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Adrienne Lawrence

Legal analyst, law professor & award-winning author

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More states are beginning to crack down on the surprisingly common practice of medical students and professional staff performing non-consensual pelvic exams on unconscious men and women in hospitals, universities and other medical facilities. Just one year ago today, those practices remained legal in a majority of U.S. states. Now, however, a new directive from the Department of Health and Human Services requires staff and students to obtain written permission prior to any such procedure, or they risk losing Medicare funding.

Straight Arrow News contributor Adrienne Lawrence expresses her outrage and confusion about how these non-consensual practices survived for so long — including throughout the #MeToo movement — while receiving so little regulation, oversight or news coverage. The government’s threat to pull Medicare funding, Lawrence argues, is far too weak of a response to prevent this practice from continuing to happen.

Given the ongoing attacks on abortion care, I’m glad to see that the Biden administration is not only stepping up, but they’re speaking out about the need to preserve the bodily autonomy of women. From the VP visiting an abortion clinic to Biden centering this human rights issue in his campaign, these visible displays of support, they’re significant. That’s why I was a bit taken aback with the Biden administration when they had a delayed and weak approach to what we know is a pervasive practice that violates the bodily autonomy of women.

This month, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that hospitals must obtain a written informed consent from patients before performing pelvic exams, especially while the patients are under anesthesia. Apparently conducting non-consensual pelvic exams on unconscious women has been a long-standing practice at teaching hospitals and medical schools across the country. The HHS said institutions that don’t comply could lose Medicare funding.

Try again, federal government. This practice of copping a feel on women in the supposed name of science is criminal. Hospitals and medical schools that violate patient bodily autonomy by conducting pelvic exams without patient consent should not just possibly lose Medicare funding, they should lose their medical licensure and their freedom.

Given the ongoing attacks on abortion care, I’m glad to see that the Biden administration is not only stepping up, but they’re speaking out about the need to preserve the bodily autonomy of women. From the VP visiting an abortion clinic to Biden centering this human rights issue in his campaign, these visible displays of support, they’re significant. That’s why I was a bit taken aback with the Biden administration when they had a delayed and weak approach to what we know is a pervasive practice that violates the bodily autonomy of women.

 

This month, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that hospitals must obtain a written informed consent from patients before performing pelvic exams, especially while the patients are under anesthesia. Apparently conducting non-consensual pelvic exams on unconscious women has been a long-standing practice at teaching hospitals and medical schools across the country. The HHS said institutions that don’t comply could lose Medicare funding.

 

Try again, federal government. This practice of copping a feel on women in the supposed name of science is criminal. Hospitals and medical schools that violate patient bodily autonomy by conducting pelvic exams without patient consent should not just possibly lose Medicare funding, they should lose their medical licensure and their freedom.

 

Let’s get this straight: In the Year of Our Lord 2024, medical professionals and professionals in training are examining the private parts of unconscious women without their consent. How are people okay with poking around others under carriages when they’re out cold? How did this disgusting practice survive? Me too? I have so many questions, including Why did it take the federal government so long to say anything about it? The Department of Health and Human Services only push back at the practice of nonconsensual pelvic exams this month. In the announcement, the HHS Secretary said the department is aware of media reports as well as medical and scientific literature highlighting instances where as part of medical students courses of study and training patients have been subjected to sensitive and intimate examinations. When were these media reports publicized mind you in 2020, so it took the HHS to what come forward four years later with their condemnation after a New York Times investigation. And to make matters worse, this investigation found that hospitals and doctors were performing pelvic exams on women who were under anesthesia even when those exams were not medically necessary. Said another way the medical community has been using vulnerable patients as guinea pigs accessing their private parts without their permission. For instance, a 33 year old Arizona nurse named Janine expressly told her physician that she did not want medical students involved in her stomach surgery in 2017. But after the Anastasia warmth wore off, well, a doctor told Janine in passing that she had gotten her period, which they noticed while conducting a pelvic exam on her. The doctor said the operating team saw she was due for a pap smear and they stepped up and figured that they would take care of it. Yeah, really. I am speechless. The doctor’s audacity has gall. Of course when they were questioned while the hospital declined to comment to the to the New York Times on its policy on informed consent for pelvic exams. They also face no legal liability it appears in many US states and medical institutions. Physicians are not required to get expressed consent for pelvic exams while women are under anesthesia. Make that makes sense. Just because you put me under doesn’t mean you get to indulge your curiosities. Yet this happens all the time. And there’s no record of who is being subjected to these unnecessary and a highly offensive physical violations. But if history has any indication, I would say it’s generally society’s most marginalized, who are systematically being victimized by the medical profession. The father of modern gynecology, well, he comes to mind as he happily performed barbaric pelvic experimentations on enslaved women, black women back in the 1800s without anesthesia or a second thought, and today, the only thing we should not be giving a second thought to is criminalizing this behavior. It should not matter whether you have an MD behind your name or not. Accessing someone’s private parts without permission should be a sex offense. Possibly pulling Medicare funding will not cut it. If this administered Rachel is serious about protecting the bodily autonomy of women it should ensure the consequences of violating that autonomy are grave.

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