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Bill requiring consent for pelvic exams in Washington gets bipartisan support

The Capitol Building in Olympia. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Doctors and medical students performing pelvic exams on unconscious women without permission: It may sound crazy, but it’s actually been a widespread practice across the country for decades.

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It’s an invasive and personal medical procedure that even in the best of circumstances, can be traumatic for some women, especially survivors of sexual abuse.

But if you think that means doctors have to first get a woman’s permission to do such as exam, you’d be wrong.

For decades, it has been a common practice across the country for hospitals to let medical students do pelvic exams on women under anesthesia or are otherwise unconscious as a teaching tool without consent, because it’s not required in most states, including Washington.

Democratic Sen. Marko Liias couldn’t believe it when he heard from a Washington woman on social media warning about the gap in the law.

“It sounded so wild, I couldn’t believe that it could be true,” Liias said.

He had his team in Olympia dig in as part of a fact-finding mission.

“It is true — there’s no requirement to get informed consent [in Washington] for a pelvic exam while unconscious,” Liias said.

That had Liias proposing a bill requiring doctors and their students to get informed consent for pelvic exams in Washington. The measure is poised to pass the Legislature with strong bi-partisan support.

The fact is that most people simply did not know this was happening. It’s only quietly come to light over the last 10 to 15 years, and only just got widespread attention in the last year or so, with many states passing their own laws requiring informed consent for pelvic exams.

As far as whether this has happened in Washington state…

“What we know is that it’s not happening at medical schools [in Washington] which is the typical case we’d seen nationwide,” Liias explained.

But he hesitates to say it has never happened in Washington after reading a recent report on it in The New York Times.

“When I read that New York Times article it made me realize that there are probably other circumstances that this could happen,” Liias explained.

“It definitely underscored the need for me to put that protection in law so that whatever circumstances may or may not have been happening, that that doesn’t happen in the future – that women always have the right to have control over their bodies, even when they’re unconscious,” Liias said.

Women who have been given pelvic exams without consent often feel violated, and that’s especially true of they are sexual assault survivors, Liias found.

“In their words the body has memory, and so even if a woman is not conscious there still are very real impacts on their body that can cause trauma and can cause that sense of violation. So it’s not an innocent practice [and] it’s one that we want to make clear is not okay here, ” Liias explained.

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His bill requires doctors in Washington and their students to have informed consent before performing a pelvic exam on an unconscious woman from either the patient or their representative.

That comes with one exception, though.

“If a woman is suspected to have been a victim of sexual assault and they can’t give consent, and [doctors] need to perhaps do an exam to collect evidence in case once the woman regains consciousness, does want to see prosecution,” Liias said, explaining how lawmakers heard from sexual assault experts to find the best way to handle that scenario.

In that particular scenario, when a woman wakes up, she would retain control over the evidence gathered.

The Senate just needs to sign off on that amendment and the bill will head to Gov. Inslee’s desk to be signed.

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