It seems obvious that if a woman is in a hospital and unconscious, then she should not have to worry about having a pelvic exam performed on her body that she did not explicitly consent to. However, the disturbing reality of what is occurring to patients in hospitals and clinics, especially teaching facilities, has brought this issue to the public’s attention.
While a medical student at the University of Hawaii in 2012,Dr. Shawn Barnes wrote about the shame he felt after being instructed to practice pelvic exams on anesthetized women. His article and activism brought this issue to light and helped to pass legislation that ban unauthorized pelvic exams in the state of Hawaii. In 2019, ELLE magazine conducted a survey of 101 medical students from seven medical schools and found that 92% percent reported performing a pelvic exam on an unconscious patient. 61% percent reported performing this procedure without explicit patient consent.
A 2005 surveyconducted at the University of Oklahoma found that a majority of medical students had performed pelvic exams to gynecologic surgery patients under anesthesia, and that in nearly three quarters of these cases the women had not consented to the exam. These survey results are incredibly alarming and indicate that it is necessary to clarify consent requirements to provide certainty for patients.
At the national level, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) position is that “pelvic examinations on an anesthetized woman that offer her no personal benefit and are performed solely for teaching purposes should be performed only with her specific informed consent obtained before her surgery”. The Patient Privacy Protection Act aligns with ACOG’s position to ensure that unconscious patients are not used as teaching tool without their knowledge and explicit consent. Wisconsin Senate Bill 635 simply requires hospitals and clinics in Wisconsin to have consent policy in place for pelvic exams on a patient who is under general anesthesia or otherwise unconscious.
Nine states currently have laws that ban non-consensual pelvic exams. Wisconsin needs to join Utah, Maryland, New York, California, Illinois, Virginia, Oregon, Hawaii and Iowa to ensure our patients are protected.