Whistleblower: Pelvic Exams on Anesthetized Women Routinely Performed
For Shawn, now an MD, it was a serious ethical and moral dilemma, which he describes in this video interview filmed as part of a planned documentary called “At Your Cervix.” In the clip, Shawn explains how third-year medical students are required to perform clinical hours in various specialties, such as psychiatry, surgery, and OB/GYN. During the 3-4-week gynecological surgery rotation, Shawn was asked to do something as part of his training that he considered a serious breach of ethics and patient rights: he was instructed to perform as many as one hundred unauthorized pelvic exams on anesthetized, unconscious, and unconsenting women.
Shawn shared his experiences with filmmaker Amy Jo Goddard, another maverick who is bringing exposure to this controversial training method. Discussing the scope and frequency of the practice, Shawn and Amy estimated that as many as 6,000 unauthorized pelvic exams could have been performed by the students in his class alone. But Shawn is not alone in his outrage. A 2001 University of Toronto study found that nearly half of the 108 medical students polled felt “pressure to act unethically” in a clinical setting, and 61% reported witnessing a clinical teacher acting unethically. Students further cited that “practicing…on unconscious patients without prior consent” was a serious moral issue, and yet, the medical establishment remains largely resistant to change.
In Shawn’s case, when he challenged the establishment at his school, administrators frowned on his assertions that anything was unethical, and were patently unwilling to consider terminating what they considered a highly efficient practice. Undeterred, Shawn focused on legislative change and was eventually successful in spurring the passage of a law making the practice illegal in Hawaii. This bucking of the system did not come without personal cost: Shawn was blacklisted from applying for residency in Hawaii due to his activism. Besides Hawaii’s recent ban, unauthorized pelvic exams are explicitly outlawed in California, Illinois, Virginia, and Oregon. The practice is legal in all other states.