July 7, 2022

“Virginity tests” unethical, says South African physician

While virginity tests for unmarried women have been universally regarded as unethical in Western countries, the practice is spreading in immigrant communities.

While virginity tests for unmarried women have been universally regarded as unethical in Western countries, the practice is spreading in immigrant communities. Physicians in European countries have been asked to examine whether a girl’s hymen is intact, creating an ethical dilemma for them. If they comply, they may expose the girl to stigmatization, or even put her at risk of being the victim of an honour killing. If they certify her virginity regardless of the result, they will break the doctor’s compact of trust and honesty with patients.

Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, a South African physician argues that medical colleges should declare that virginity tests are unethical, thus giving doctors a right to refuse. The Quebec College of Physicians has already done this.

The author, Dr Kevin Gary Behrens, of the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics, University of the Witwatersrand, is familiar with the issue, as it is a serious problem in South Africa. Girls who “fail” are called “rotten potatoes”. But girls who pass could be targeted by rapists or men who believe that intercourse with a virgin will “cure” AIDS.

He points out that research in The Lancet and the BMJ has shown that  “virginity testing” is devoid of scientific value.

“This has the effect of rendering every virginity certificate ever issued by a physician scientifically fraudulent. Thus, for a physician to agree to perform a virginity test entails a flagrant disregard of the principle that medicine should be practised on the basis of scientific principles. The moral obligation of a physician who is approached to perform such a test is clear: the physician should inform the client that it is simply not possible to do what is being asked. Since there is no scientific basis upon which any physician can certify that a particular woman is or is not a virgin, it would be unethical for any physician to concede to such a request.”

The tests are also socially harmful, argues Dr Behrens, as they perpetuate stereotypes about women, misogyny and patriarchal attitudes. 

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