In many states, it is legal for a medical school student to perform a pelvic exam on a patient without consent. That is wrong!

TRIGGER WARNING: This blog post is about the topic of sexual assault. Reader discretion is strongly advised.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This blog post quotes part of an article on the website of Elle magazine that referred to an individual by a pseudonym assigned by Elle magazine. As protocol at Apollo Corner is to use quotation marks for assigned pseudonyms, the quoted portion of the Elle magazine article has been edited on Apollo Corner to comply with Apollo Corner protocol.

I am not a medical professional of any kind, and I do not claim to be, or aspire to be, one. However, after reading this Elle magazine article about how medical school students can sexually assault patients under the guise of performing medical exams and legally get away with it in many states, I was completely shocked to learn how commonplace it was for medical school students to perform pelvic exams on female patients while unconscious and without their consent, and to learn that, in many states, that it is legal for medical school students to do so. Here is the first three paragraphs of the article:

In 2016, “Katie” had just started her first clinical rotation for the Yale School of Medicine. For six weeks, she would work in Bridgeport Hospital’s ob-gyn department, during which time she’d be shepherded in and out of operating rooms by residents and attending physicians. “Katie”, then 28, rarely met patients before their surgeries. Instead, the third-year student would often show up at an operating room, where the female patient was already unconscious, and observe or perform whatever maneuver her superiors requested. (She remembers once asking if she could pre-round on patients before surgery in order to introduce herself. She was told no.)

“Katie” once performed a pelvic exam on a woman who was under anesthesia. This involves placing two fingers into the vagina while a second hand is placed on the patient’s abdomen to feel for ovaries, masses, and uterine mobility. Pelvic exams, a regular part of gynecological visits, are necessary before gynecological surgery, as they allow physicians to examine anatomy before performing procedures like hysterectomies and fibroid removals. At teaching hospitals, where medical students are involved in patient care, students regularly perform these exams for educational training. They’re often the third or fourth person to conduct the procedure, after an attending physician and one or two residents. “Katie” had not met the female patient before she inserted her fingers into her vagina. She didn’t know if the patient even knew she was in the room. “I’m certain [she] did not give consent,” “Katie” says now, three years later. “I would be shocked if the [resident or attending] got it on my behalf.”

This spring, ELLE conducted a survey of 101 medical students from seven major American medical schools. Ninety-two percent reported performing a pelvic exam on an anesthetized female patient. Of that group, 61 percent reported performing this procedure without explicit patient consent. At most university-affiliated hospitals, patients sign consent forms that vaguely allude to medical students’ involvement in “their care,” language that protects the hospitals from liability. At New York–Presbyterian Hospital, the primary hospital affiliated with Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, patients sign a consent form stating that “other practitioners may assist with the procedure(s) as necessary, and may perform important tasks related to the surgery.” Medical students are not, legally, “other practitioners,” and thus are not included in their consent form at all.


The article also noted that it is commonplace for medical school students to perform prostate exams on male patients while the patients are unconscious and without the patients’ consent.

It should be absolutely illegal for a physician, a medical school student, or any other medical professional and/or medical professional in training, to perform nonconsensual pelvic or prostate exams. Performing nonconsensual pelvic or prostrate exams should be, in the eyes of the law, considered to be sexual assault. While the Elle magazine article did not provide information on which states do and do not prohibit nonconsensual prostrate exams, the article did note which states prohibit nonconsensual pelvic exams, and the list is very short. Only eight states have laws on the books that ban performing a pelvic exam without the patient’s consent: California, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Oregon, Utah, and Virginia. In a ninth state, New York, legislation has been recently passed to ban performing a pelvic exam without the patient’s consent. This blog has a 13-state primary focus area consisting of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. In only two of those 13 states, Illinois and Iowa, is performing a pelvic exam without the patient’s consent illegal.

It should be illegal in every U.S. jurisdiction for a medical professional, medical school student, etc. to perform pelvic or prostate exams without consent from the patient.