In Medicine, the Morally Unthinkable Too Easily Comes to Seem Normal

Here is the way I remember it: The year is 1985, and a few medical students are gathered around an operating table where an anesthetized woman has been prepared for surgery. The attending physician, a gynecologist, asks the group: “Has everyone felt a cervix? Here’s your chance.” One after another, we take turns inserting two gloved fingers into the unconscious woman’s vagina.

Had the woman consented to a pelvic exam? Did she understand that when the lights went dim she would be treated like a clinical practice dummy, her genitalia palpated by a succession of untrained hands? I don’t know. Like most medical students, I just did as I was told.

Last month the Department of Health and Human Services issued new guidance requiring written informed consent for pelvic exams and other intimate procedures performed under anesthesia. Much of the force behind the new requirement came from distressed medical students who saw these pelvic exams as wrong and summoned the courage to speak out.

Whether the guidance will actually change clinical practice I don’t know. Medical traditions are notoriously difficult to uproot, and academic medicine does not easily tolerate ethical dissent. I doubt the medical profession can be trusted to reform itself.

What is it that leads a rare individual to say no to practices that are deceptive, exploitative or harmful when everyone else thinks they are fine? For a long time I assumed that saying no was mainly an issue of moral courage. The relevant question was: If you are a witness to wrongdoing, will you be brave enough to speak out?

But then I started talking to insiders who had blown the whistle on abusive medical research. Soon I realized that I had overlooked the importance of moral perception. Before you decide to speak out about wrongdoing, you have to recognize it for what it is.

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