Did you know that it’s common practice for medical students to do pelvic exams on women who are under anesthetic? Apparently, when a woman goes to the hospital to have her tonsils out, or her knee operated on, or a cancerous tumor in her breast removed, it’s entirely possible that an ambitious medical student may stick his hand inside her vagina while she’s unconscious so that he can brush up on his pelvic examination skills.
For 3 weeks, four to five times a day, I was asked to, and did, perform pelvic examinations on anesthetized women, without specific consent, solely for the purpose of my education. To my shame, I obeyed
This kind of thing is what got me interested in women’s health issues.
Many years ago, when I was a
wild and crazy studious undergraduate, I had a pap test that came back indicating irregular cells on my cervix. The doctor at student health recommended I have a colposcopy at the hospital. The only doctor who was available to do the exam was male. I was not enthusiastic about this, but I went along with it.
A colposcopy is like a pelvic exam on steroids. It was painful, and made me dizzy and nauseous, but that I could endure. What I couldn’t endure was the commentary by that the gynecologist who performed the exam. At the time the war in Bosnia was going on and there was daily news about the rapes there. As I lay on the examining table, naked from the waist down while he did the procedure, he made small talk.
“I’ve had patients who were way worse than this,” he said. “I’ve had patients who look like a group of Serbians went through them. But don’t worry,” he assured me, “I can fix you up like the Virgin Mary.”
What? I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. That my cervix look better than the cervix of a woman who had been gang raped? That I shouldn’t worry because things could be much worse? I was struck speechless, but the memory persisted.
After that, I started talking to women about their experiences. I found that for women, humiliation at the hands of medical providers was endemic. It was also institutionalized: at the time, abortion was legal in Canada but women had to go before a panel of three doctors who would decide if their case was worthy.
But still, when I read about medical students doing pelvic exams on women under anesthetic, I’m outraged and shocked all over again. It shouldn’t be a surprise. As the historian Deborah Kuhn McGregor writes in her book From Midwives to Medicine, Dr. Marion Sims, the founding father of gynecology, perfected his surgical skills on enslaved women without using anesthetic. Seen in this context, encouraging medical interns to conduct non-consensual pelvic examinations on unconscious women could be interpreted as just the natural progression of the field.
Sometimes I forget about this kind of thing. But then I remember.