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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) – “If Ms. Wilson or the Illinois College of Law happens to see this video, I have a couple things to tell you,” a woman named Bonnie said to her more than 200,000 TikTok followers earlier this month.
Bonnie asked WCIA News not to share her last name. Several years ago, while under anesthesia for a spinal cord surgery in a teaching hospital outside of Illinois, she was given an unauthorized pelvic exam.
“My tissue is extremely fragile, and I’m a sexual assault survivor. So, nobody needs to do anything down there, unless I’m fully consenting and fully aware – which I was not,” she said in a February TikTok.
She recently opened up about the traumatic experience on social media, hoping to prevent the same from happening to others. The problem is, performing “intimate” exams with the goal of teaching medical students to diagnose abnormalities, even without the patient’s consent, is legal in many states – including where it happened to her in 2019.
It’s a reality University of Illinois College of Law Professor Robin Fretwell Wilson and her Epstein Health Law and Policy Program team have been working with lawmakers to change for years. As millions of people watched Bonnie’s original TikTok video, a volunteer member of Wilson’s team reached out mid-February.
“We would love to talk more about you getting involved in our efforts,” they said in an email to Bonnie. “We want to understand how we can use the TikTok to help get laws changed.”
Bonnie agreed to join a Zoom meeting set for February 24 with Wilson and two members of her team – a medical student and a law student – with the stipulation that personal details like her name and location be omitted. She was primarily worried about being linked to the hospital where it happened, citing its “litigious” history.
“They have tried to literally ruin patients lives for talking out about this speaking out about this. Sorry, I’m nervous,” she explained in a TikTok.
Bonnie expected the Zoom call to be private, so she agreed when she says Wilson asked for intimate details about her experience at the hospital and previous sexual assault. Then, she heard an unknown voice ask a question – a voice Wilson identified as her hairdresser’s.
“And then she [Wilson] said, ‘sorry, I didn’t have any other time to take this call or to do this. I’m at the hairdresser right now and have you on speakerphone,’” Bonnie recalled. “I felt like I was going to throw up.”
Bonnie felt violated all over again.
“My mind was just spinning with the thoughts of: ‘oh, great, me being sexually assaulted and information about my disabilities are going to be like salon gossip that day.’ And I was extremely disturbed by that,” she said.
After the call, Bonnie emailed the medical student on the team about how inappropriately she felt it was handled.
“And just the absolute sick irony of the call being about informed consent, and being about your health care providers taking advantage of that relationship and that power dynamic and doing things behind patient’s backs. And then here, the person who’s supposedly fighting against that, did the same thing,” Bonnie said.
The student replied: “I apologize for this. I was not aware Prof. Wilson was going to be in a public place during the call. I completely understand your concern.”
After the message was forwarded to Wilson, she emailed Bonnie: “I owe you an apology since my schedule slipped, but I should have said that out front. Happy to call you privately regarding this. Should I set a Zoom where we can chat since I understand the privacy of your phone number[?]”
Bonnie wanted more than an apology. She wanted the university to take action.
“So, I have decided to name names,” she said over TikTok on March 7. “That lead lawyer’s name is Robin Fretwell Wilson.”
In a statement Tuesday, U of I Associate Chancellor of Public Affairs Robin Kaler confirmed the university was taking the reports seriously.
I can’t comment on specific personnel issues. I can tell you that Professor Robin Fretwell Wilson is currently appointed full-time as the director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs with the University of Illinois System. She also holds a tenured, faculty appointment in the College of Law on the Urbana campus. She is currently on paid administrative leave. We take very seriously any reports of behavior that might violate the University’s policies or employment expectations related to professional conduct, ethics, research compliance or other matters. When we learn of possible violations, we act quickly and consistent with due process to review and, if necessary, to take any appropriate actions. Immediately upon learning of this matter, the University Ethics Officer communicated with the individual who posted their concerns regarding their interaction to obtain additional information. There have been several other communications directly with that individual since the initial one. We care deeply about any individual who has been affected by inappropriate behavior. We believe that survivors of sexual misconduct should always be treated with empathy and dignity and in a manner that fully respects their wishes for privacy and confidentiality.
Wilson’s website says for nearly two decades, she: “has engaged in the initiative to require express consent for intimate exams when the exams are for the student’s, rather than the patient’s benefit,” and “since January 1, 2019, Professor Wilson and a team of students have been supporting legislative efforts across the country where twenty-four bills have been introduced in eighteen states. Sixteen have become law in fifty one months.”
“One of the saddest things… is that one of the people who was most active in working against what happened to this TikTok user, has been tarred and feathered,” Wilson’s attorney George Galland said.
Last week, Wilson was placed on paid administrative leave from her position as Director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs. In the meantime, Galland says she’s received countless online threats.
“Robin went to the police and said, ‘do I need to take any of these threats seriously? And the police investigated them and decided, ‘yes, you do, you should not appear in public. If you need to appear in public, we’re going to give you a a security guard,’” Galland said.
Galland says Wilson, who feels it best not to comment herself at this time, admits answering the call in public was a “lapse in judgment.” He also says it’s important to note Wilson was not acting as Bonnie’s lawyer during the Zoom call, so there was no breach of attorney-client privilege.
“Was it a good idea for Robin to keep her speakerphone going when she went into the beauty parlor? The answer to that is of course it wasn’t. She has been kicking herself for that ever since she did it,” Galland said.
Galland says there’s no denying Bonnie should be upset, but the online backlash turned his client who he describes as “one of the most distinguished advocates of women’s rights” into “a pariah,” and he feels the university made a snap decision putting her on leave.
“We’re having very serious discussions with the university as to what it ought to do over what we believe were some serious violations of the university statutes that have harmed Robin,” Galland said. “I’ve represented people in Robin’s position, and I’ve represented people in the university’s position. These aren’t easy kinds of situations when people are screaming and yelling about one of your distinguished faculty members on the internet.”
So far, he believes negotiations have been “constructive,” and is optimistic they’ll reach a solution soon. Galland confirmed Wilson has returned to her position as a College of Law faculty member this week after she was notified of a “misunderstanding” over the terms of her leave, which remains in effect for her position as IGPA director.
University of Illinois System Associate Director of Executive Communications David Mercer said beyond the information confirmed with Kaler, “the system didn’t have anything to add.”
Unauthorized pelvic exams were addressed by Illinois state law in 2004 with an amendment to the Medical Practice Act of 1987. It states physicians and/or students in clinical training programs may not perform the examination on anesthetized or unconscious female patients unless: “(1) the patient gave informed consent to the pelvic examination, (2) the performance of a pelvic examination is within the scope of care for the surgical procedure or diagnostic examination to be performed on the patient, or (3) in the case of an unconscious patient, the pelvic examination is required for diagnostic purposes.”