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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...