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Patients are still being subjected to non-consensual pelvic exams. Now Missouri may ban them

A group of medical students stand around a gynecological teaching associate who's performing a pelvic exam on a woman.
'At Your Cervix' documentary website
'At Your Cervix' director and producer A'magine worked as a gynecological teaching associate in New York City for 10 years, where she taught medical and nursing students how to perform pelvic exams on her own body. She's received about 1,000 pelvic exams for the benefit of student education, she said.

The exams, which occur on anesthetized patients without their knowledge, are often done by medical and nursing students who are told to perform them by their superiors. While non-consensual pelvic, prostate and anal exams remain legal in 29 states, legislation that seeks to ban the practice has gained traction in Missouri.

Note: This conversation may be triggering for those who have experienced sexual trauma.

Non-consensual pelvic exams are happening on unconscious patients with regularity.

A 2022 study of 305 OB-GYN medical students found that 84% had performed at least one pelvic exam on a patient under anesthesia. Of those students, 67% said they “never or rarely” got informed consent from the patient.

“It violates some of the key tenets of ethical norms in terms of patient care, patient autonomy, and the importance of trust between a doctor and a patient,” Yvette Lindgren, a UMKC associate professor of law, said on Up To Date Tuesday.

Non-consensual pelvic exams are legal in 29 states. SB 106, sponsored by Democratic Missouri state Sen. Lauren Arthur (District 17), seeks to change that.

The legislation, which the Senate voted 33-0 in favor of late last month, would prohibit health care providers from performing pelvic, prostate or anal exams on patients under anesthesia without first receiving explicit, informed consent.

“We want to make sure that every patient has the right to say what happens to his or her body,” Arthur said on Up To Date. “This is about patient dignity, respect, and ensuring that they know what they can expect from their medical providers and team.”

At Your Cervix,’ a new documentary film exposing the prevalence of non-consensual pelvic exams in health care, will be screened at UMKC’s Miller Nichols Library Wednesday evening. A’magine, who teaches and writes about sexuality, directed and produced the film. Before the documentary, she worked as a gynecological teaching assistant for a decade in New York City.

She told Up To Date’s Steve Kraske that non-consensual exams are nothing new in medicine, and especially gynecology.

“Gynecology started through experimentation on Black enslaved women without consent, without any pain medication or anesthesia. So it's not a big stretch to see how we have a practice today that denies the consent of its patients, and is going to overwhelmingly impact people who are the most disenfranchised,” she said.

Event details: 'At Your Cervix' Screening and Discussion Panel, 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 12 at Miller Nichols Library, Room 352, 800 E 51st St, Kansas City, Missouri 64110. Event is free with registration.

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When I host Up To Date each morning at 9, my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. Reach me at steve@kcur.org or on Twitter @stevekraske.
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