Requiring patient consent for pelvic exams

Elizabeth Fiedler
Elizabeth Fiedler

State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler introduced a bill to protect female patients’ privacy rights while in the hospital.

Fiedler, whose district represents parts of South Philadelphia, introduced the bill alongside Rep. Liz Hanbidge. If passed, the law would require patient consent for pelvic exams. Currently, medical students can perform a pelvic exam on a female patient who is under anesthesia for an unrelated procedure. Pelvic exams are done solely for medical students’ training purposes. Oftentimes, the patient has not given explicit consent and is entirely unaware of what is being done to her body while under anesthesia.

“A couple of years ago, a resident of my district came to me concerned about what happened to her while she was a patient for a medical procedure, under anesthesia,” Fiedler said. “She worried that while she was unconscious, her body had been used for a practice pelvic exam. A year later she still didn’t have answers, despite asking her doctor directly.”

Fiedler said she started looking into the situation and decided a change needed to be made. 

“The more I researched the situation, the more horrified I was,” Fiedler said. “I learned that, in our commonwealth, medical students can legally perform a pelvic or rectal exam on a patient who is under anesthesia. The patient often is entirely unaware of what is being done to their body — of the violation of their body. In these cases, the pelvic or rectal exam is done not for the patient’s health, but for the medical student’s training purposes. Making sure we have highly trained medical professionals is incredibly important, and at the same time, patients should be asked for their consent ahead of time.”

The bill was passed by the Health Committee and will now head to the House floor for a vote.

Hanbidge called the current procedures an “archaic and unacceptable” practice.

“Making informed, consensual medical decisions in consultation with your physician is a fundamental aspect of good healthcare,” Hanbidge said. “The fact that it has become commonplace for pelvic exams to be conducted for the purpose of training medical personnel without the patients’ consent, while patients are under anesthesia, is archaic and unacceptable. The Pennsylvania House Health Committee took an essential step forward in ending this practice today by passing a bill that would require medical schools, teaching hospitals and medical institutions to obtain explicit patient consent to perform all such procedures and exams while a patient is under anesthesia. This bill protects patients’ rights and ensures patients have a full and complete understanding of what procedures and exams will take place while they are under anesthesia. I applaud the esteemed members of the Health Committee for advancing this legislation and look forward to seeing this bill come to the House floor for a vote.”

The bill received support from the Women’s Law Project.

“Women’s Law Project strongly supports House Bill 507,” said Amal Bass, interim executive co-director of Women’s Law Project. “It is past time to eliminate the heinous practice of non-consensual pelvic, rectal and prostate exams in Pennsylvania. It perpetuates the long, shameful legacy of sexist and racist abuse in the name of medical progress. Our bodies are not public property. We are not living test dummies to be experimented with and practiced upon.”