Last week I made an appointment with my OB/GYN to get a contraceptive IUD inserted.
Yeah, I know that was too much information, but stick with me.
A few days after I made the appointment a patient information form arrived stating that I needed to complete it before my procedure.
The personal information being requested was, among other things, my relationship status.
The form asked if I am: Married, Separated, Single, Divorced, De Facto, Widowed or Same Sex Partner. And while other questions on the form were marked as optional, such as religion, relationship status was not.
What possible reason could there be to ascertain my relationship status before inserting a contraceptive device?
It’s not about next-of-kin because there’s a separate question on the form for that.
And it’s not about determining if my doctor should address me as Ms/Miss/Mrs because there’s no way of knowing a woman’s preference from those questions.
And given that she delivered my baby not that long ago, my OB/GYN has probably already sussed that I don’t share the same surname as my baby’s father and I’m not a “Mrs” kind of gal anyway.
Obstetrician and former AMA president Andrew Pesce says that the medical profession’s interest in people’s relationship status is all about being thorough.
“Doctors in general like to take a bit of a social history because, for example, sometimes it’s important to know if there’s somebody at home who is able to support the patient in recovery,” Dr Pesce said.
That might be the case, but it’s quite an assumption that a woman with a husband necessarily has someone to care for her when she’s sick. Yes, some husbands step-up, but I know plenty of women who have to rely on friends, sisters, daughters and mothers for such care. And what if the partner travels for work or is away for extended periods?
If it’s thoroughness that we’re after, wouldn’t it be more straightforward to simply ask “Is there someone at home to support your recovery?”
When pushed as to how it is relevant to a medical professional to know if a woman’s husband died or if one of them chose to leave, Dr Pesce conceded that some doctors use out-dated paperwork.
Perhaps, but the form in question isn’t some relic from the Menzies era. After all, they had taken the time to update it to include “Same Sex Partner.”
President of Reproductive Choice Australia Jenny Ejlak says that questions about relationship status rely too heavily on stereotypes.
“The practitioner [needs to] assess the life circumstances of the woman and her contraceptive needs… However, a conversation about what the woman wants out of her contraception (long term, short term, hormonal, barrier etc) would be a better approach,” Ms Ejlak said.
Some might say it’s just a form. Why am I making such a big deal out of a check box?
Well, for one, it’s none of my doctor’s business if I choose to have sex in or out of wedlock.
And let’s not pretend there’s not a gendered component to these questions. As a management consultant I once worked for one of Australia’s largest corporations that stored data on its male customers specifying if they were in a relationship or single. But there were extra fields in the database for female customers, detailing if the single women were widowed, divorced or never married.
This is no doubt a legacy of a by-gone era. But while these practices still exist so does the sexism and inequality behind them.
For generations, a woman’s marital status has been used to cast judgement and aspersions on her moral character and worth. And when the medical procedure is about contraception, you have to question whether there is still a stigma attached.
My gynaecologist isn’t the only one with an inappropriate interest in people’s relationship status.
For years after my parents’ marriage ended my mum disintegrated into a puddle of tears every time she was confronted with the relationship status question on a form.
She felt such shame over her broken wedding vows that she wanted to annotate in the margin of every form so that it was on record that my dad left her and she wasn’t the one that ended the marriage.
Dr Pesce says that if a person is offended by the questions asked on forms they should just refuse to answer them.
That’s well and good, but it overlooks the not insufficient fact that doctors have power. Many people, especially vulnerable and marginalised people, feel intimidated by doctors and would be unlikely to question such forms.
And, simply asking the question can make people feel inadequate or insecure. I’m sure my mother is not the only one traumatised by these questions.
Questions that are wholly unnecessary. And questions that subtly remind us that the identity of a woman is still partially dependent on her relationship to a man.