During an hours-long committee hearing on Monday, an Idaho lawmaker got a quick lesson in female anatomy, after he asked a doctor to explain to him why things don't end up in women's vaginas after said things are ingested orally.
The question, from Republican Rep. Vito Barbieri, pertained (sort of) to a bill that would ban doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing medication via telemedicine, a developing technological tool that allows doctors to provide reproductive healthcare to women who live in rural areas or have limited access to abortion clinics. Telemedicine could dramatically expand women’s access to reproductive healthcare, so, naturally, more than a dozen states have already passed legislation preventing doctors from using the practice. Idaho could be next.
According to the Associated Press, Barbieri -- who voted in favor of the legislation -- asked Dr. Julie Madsen, who was testifying against the bill, why doctors can't conduct remote gynecological exams using tiny cameras that women would swallow. As Madsen pointed out, it would not be feasible for doctors to perform the proposed remote exams, because ingestible objects do not end up in the vagina.
Concerned that the AP report does not go far enough in explaining what happens when women swallow tiny cameras, or what would happen if women’s mouths and reproductive organs were actually connected, I reached out to Dr. Kathleen Morrell, an OB-GYN in New York, to discuss the human digestive system, a possible internal mouth-to-vagina pipeline and whether or not tiny swallowed cameras could ever be useful for gynecologists. Additionally, I reached out to my colleague Katie McDonough for an illustration of what a mouth-to-vagina pipeline would look like.
My conversation with Dr. Morrell has been lightly edited for clarity.
What happens when a woman swallows something? Where does it go?
It would go through the entirety of the gastrointestinal digestive tract, which would go all the way through your throat, then stomach, and then your small and large intestines and then out your anus.
And at no point does the digestive tract intersect with the vagina or reproductive organs, correct?
Correct. Unless someone has some sort of medical complication that is incredibly rare, called a fistula, where there would be a connection between your intestines and your vagina, there is absolutely no usual biological connection between those two things.
So there’s no direct pipeline from mouth straight to vagina? That doesn’t exist?
Correct. Unless there was kind of a see-through window in your intestines and you could maybe see your uterus from the outside as it goes by, but that would maybe be it.
And so what would be the repercussions? If women’s mouths and vaginas were directly connected, would women start shooting tampons out of their mouths? What would that even be like?
Depending on how you looked at it, women would either pass feces through their vaginas, or when they bleed, they would be bleeding from the same place they poop from when they have their periods.
Aside from the fact that, anatomically, this makes no sense, would using these cameras even help doctors do their jobs? How would that be beneficial?
In all honesty, I don’t know. I was trying to read in the article exactly what the lawmaker was trying to get at in terms of why he would even ask that question in regard to a bill about medication abortion. But I know that, for instance, gastroenterologists have been looking into using this for colonoscopies, which makes complete sense because that’s the part of the body where the camera would be passing by. But it’s never been brought up in the OB-GYN world at all.
For a guide to the theoretical mouth-to-vagina pipeline, see below: