Time’s Up for Sexually Abusive OB/GYNs

How could a person who sliced me open in surgery, reached inside of me and brought my daughters out into the world also use my body against my will to gratify himself sexually? Listening to more than 150 women read impact statements at Larry Nassar’s sentencing, I came to understand what we have in common.

I know how it feels to realize that a doctor sexually abused you on their examination table. OB/GYN Robert A. Hadden assaulted me on at least two occasions, including when I was pregnant.

A protestor at the North Carolina Moral March. (MomsRising)

The pain comes randomly: when I see the Cesarean scar he stitched, when I present my daughters’ birth certificates bearing his name for school registration, when I read media coverage of the allegations by nearly 200 women against USC gynecologist George Tyndall. Hadden destroyed the memories of my one pregnancy and, despite accusations by at least 18 other victims, walked away with a lenient plea deal and no jail time. His behavior was a clear abuse of power; a power only accessible under his professional guise as a doctor.

Information about doctor/patient sexual abuse, particularly by OB/GYNs, is hard to come by. A 2017 study revealed that patients were examined alone in 85 percent of cases; a review of public records by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found just 78 male OB/GYNs within the thousands of doctors accused of sexual misconduct with patients in the last 10 years.

Male OB/GYNs are in a unique position to sexually abuse women—not only because they can claim a valid medical purpose for being in your vagina, but because of the vulnerability of pregnant women. Childbirth was traditionally handled exclusively by women serving as midwives; in the mid-19th century, men, hoping to cash in on this potentially lucrative practice, pushed women out through the professionalization of medicine and the exclusion of women from medical schools. Since then, men have controlled and dominated the field of obstetrics—but they are no longer the majority. Men represent less than half of OB/GYN doctors today and only 17 percent of OB/GYN residents.

Pregnancy is a multi-billion dollar industry for healthcare providers, medical facilities and others. For many women, it is full of conflicting opinions and often shrouded in fear and uncertainty. Even a “routine pregnancy” is a daunting task to undertake.

I learned that I was pregnant with two at just eight weeks. Thirty more weeks of waiting felt like an eternity, especially for someone prone to anxiety. At most visits, all I cared about was Hadden telling me that my babies were on track. Why would I have any reason to doubt the care of someone who had practiced as an assistant clinical professor and doctor at Columbia University Medical Center for nearly 25 years?

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other professional medical groups should adopt stronger ethical standards of behavior for members—and proactively offer clear guidelines for OB/GYNs, medical practices and their patients. Women can ask to have someone else in the room, but it is still rarely a requirement. The institutions and professional associations employing or credentialing doctors have an ethical responsibility to protect the people they serve and must be held accountable when they fail to do so.

As we saw with cases from the Michigan State University and the University of Southern California, perpetrators were allowed to continue abusing women within the confines of their positions. Columbia University has remained silent except to refute claims about Hadden, despite credible accusations that they knew about his inappropriate behavior going to the 1990s. If you are a doctor, you can call on the American Medical Association and state medical societies to write specific policy mandating that sex crimes by health care providers be reported to law enforcement. Thought that would already be required? Yeah, I did too.

We also need to ensure that women understand their rights as a patient. (Information about what to expect in a medical setting can be found here and here.)

In a recently-published series detailing sexual abuse by doctors, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the “#MeToo movement and public outcry over Nassar’s sex abuse have not reformed the system that disciplines doctors.” The #MeToo movement gave me the courage to speak publicly, and as more people share their stories of sexual assault, we will undoubtedly learn about others who systematically and repeatedly prey on those around them.

As a society, we must commit to doing better for women and for mothers.

About and

Marissa Hoechstetter works in higher education development and advocates for survivors of sexual assault. 
Carrie N. Baker is Professor and Director of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. Her 2007 book The Women's Movement Against Sexual Harassment won the National Women’s Studies Association Sara A. Whaley Book Prize. Her second book, Fighting the US Youth Sex Trade: Gender, Race and Politics, tells the story of activism against youth involvement in the sex trade in the United States between 1970 and 2015.