NSS calls for action on religious denial of women’s medical care

Posted: Fri, 16th Dec 2022

NSS calls for action on religious denial of women’s medical care

The National Secular Society has urged the government to act on reports that NHS staff are denying women care due to their religious views on virginity.

The NSS wrote to the Minister for Women's Health Strategy, Maria Caulfield MP, after a VICE World News investigation revealed NHS practitioners are refusing to perform internal ultrasounds on women who have not had penetrative sex.

The report found that clinicians told women who said they were virgins that they could not perform clinically indicated transvaginal ultrasounds (TVUS), due to their religious beliefs around breaking the hymen.

In a TVUS, a probe is inserted into the vaginal canal to investigate conditions such as pelvic pain and unexplained bleeding.

In one case reported by VICE, a woman in Leicestershire said her doctor refused to perform a TVUS "due to religious beliefs as I am a virgin and her beliefs don't allow her to even risk breaking my hymen".

The patient said she "was just begging for answers as to why I was in daily pain for over 2 years".

Another woman explicitly linked the denial of TVUS to a culture of 'virginity testing': "I've grown up with this oppressive culture, in a family where unfortunately they still do virginity tests, where they try to label a woman as just her parts".

Following a review by the Department of Health and Social Care last year, the government banned hymenoplasty (also known as 'virginity restoration') and virginity testing. The review found demand for hymenoplasty was driven by "damaging and repressive attitudes towards a woman's sexuality and virginity". The NSS supported the move.

Clinicians who refuse to perform a TVUS due to beliefs about virginity are contravening 2022 British Medical Ultrasound Society guidance, which says if patient has not had penetrative sex, "they are still entitled to be offered, and to accept, a TVUS".

"[T]he concept of virginity plays no part in the clinical decision making for a TVUS, and the examination should be offered by the ultrasound practitioner, when clinically indicated", it adds.

NSS: care should be based on 'clinical need not misogynistic dogma'

The NSS called on the government to "investigate and take action" to ensure medically appropriate care is not being denied by clinicians on "religious or cultural grounds".

It said clinicians who refuse patients a TVUS on religious grounds create "perverse and dangerous" incentives for women to lie to their clinicians or have sex when they otherwise would not.

It added that some women are being pressured to "undergo more invasive investigation than is clinically necessary" when a TVUS is refused. It also raised concerns that access to contraception, such as the intra-uterine coil, is being denied on similar grounds.

NSS campaigns officer Dr Alejandro Sanchez said: "It is unforgiveable that in 21st century Britain regressive religious beliefs are still invoked to deny women necessary medical investigations.

"This practice is endangering patient safety by pressuring women to lie to their doctors so they can access treatment they are entitled to, or even forcing them to undergo riskier and more invasive procedures.

"Care should be provided on the basis of clinical need, not misogynistic dogma."

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Tags: Women