Imagine you’re unconscious and several men insert objects into your vagina. Many women would consider this gang rape. At the very least, sexual assault. Guess what, it may have happened to you—without your knowledge!
How would you react if you underwent surgery such as a routine hysterectomy and found out that right after you were anesthetized, a team of medical students performed pelvic exams—without your consent? I believe that is a violation of our basic rights, to say the least. Where’s the respect?
I know what I’d do: file a medical malpractice suit, pronto. As a matter of fact, I’m actually scheduled for routine surgery in a few months—at a university hospital—and that rang my alarm bell. I called my gynecologist and spoke with her receptionist. “Under no circumstances do I want a student poking around my private parts,” I said, or probably yelled. She replied that I had to take that up with my gynecologist, who of course is never available for a phone call.
So does uninformed consent qualify for a medical malpractice suit? Well, not quite, but then again, I haven’t spoken with a medical malpractice attorney…What I did discover online is that “A medical practitioner may also be legally liable if a patient does not give “informed consent” to a medical procedure that results in harm to the patient, even if the procedure is performed properly.” In my opinion, psychological harm fits the bill.
In Canada, you aren’t even asked for consent, unlike the UK and the US—or so Americans and Brits were led to believe. Some ethical medical students have been asked to perform pelvic exams in Canada (and in British and American hospitals) without the patient’s knowledge, and they have refused. And that’s how the public knows about this nasty little secret—from med students speaking out. Good for them.
Pelvic exams without consent in the UK and the US were ostensibly banned years ago, but in 2003 the BBC reported that this policy was not being followed. One year later, ABC’s Good Morning America show interviewed Dr. Ari Silver-Isenstadt, co-author of a study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, who said that for years, students had been performing pelvic exams on patients who had not officially given consent.
On one online health forum, a midwife said that doing a vaginal exam on a dummy is almost as useless as doing one on an anesthetized patient. Most of us tense up when we have a pelvic exam so what’s the point of examining a woman who is unconscious? Wouldn’t a med student need to learn how to be gentle and reassuring? It’s incomprehensible that this 19th century “learning tool” is still going on today.
Ladies, if you are scheduled for a routine surgery, read the small print before you sign on the dotted line when admitted to hospital—particularly if you live in Canada. Some consent forms say that “Students may be involved in my care,” but that doesn’t mean they have carte blanche. If you don’t want it, write an amendment to the consent form stating NO pelvic exams. If you had surgery before 2004 and think you might have been violated, you might want to consider talking to a medical malpractice attorney. I certainly would.