David Reimer – Possibly the most unethical study in psychological history

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David Reimer was born as Bruce Reimer in 1965. Aged 8 months, Bruce and his twin Brian went for a routine circumcision. However, Bruce’s penis was accidently destroyed during his operation. John Money (1965) was a well-known psychologist and a sexologist at the time. Money (1965) suggested that Bruce should have a sex change, as plastic surgery was not advanced enough. Unknown to Bruce’s parents, Money had an ulterior motive (Diamond and Sigmundson, 1997).

Money had been working on a theory – that any boy could be raised as a girl (Money & Ehrhardt, 1972). He believed that Nurture was more important than Nature when it came to gender roles. The Reimer twins provided Money with a perfect sample, two twin boys (one believing they were a girl) raised by the same people in the same way. This allowed Money to experiment on Bruce while using Brian as a control.

Bruce underwent surgery and was raised as Brenda, a girl. Brenda behaved exactly as a little girl; playing with dolls, baking cookies, wearing dresses etc. Money published his works, stating that he had evidence to back up his theory. However, around the age of 7, Brenda began to act in a masculine way. In an attempt to stop this, Money tried to force Brenda to realise that she was female, and in some cases he was even accused of acting in a paedophilic way towards her and her brother (Langevin & Reuben, 1985).

Around the age of 13, Brenda began to look and act incredibly masculine, rejecting the femininity that had been forced upon her. Brenda’s parents eventually told her the truth when she was 14. Immediately she decided that she wanted to be a boy again, she stopped taking her hormones and changed her name to David. David later had surgery to reconstruct a penis, and went on to have a wife and children. However, aged 38 he committed suicide, 2 years after his twin also killed himself. It is believed that they both committed suicide because of the methodology used by Money and his impact on their life (Kipnis & Diamond, 1998)

Money’s reputation was ruined after he reported successes on a flawed experiment. David and his twin brother alleged that Dr Money had taken numerous naked photos of the twins during their treatment, and had even forced them to engage in “sexual play” at age 7 (Diamond & Sigmundson). As a psychologist, Money should have sought to protect the twins as they were so young (Galliher, 1973).

This study breaks many ethical codes of conduct. Firstly, the Reimer twins’ parents were deceived by Money. They were never told of his intentions to use their son as part of an experiment, and were led to believe that a sex change was the only option for baby Bruce. Secondly, Bruce never gave his consent to have the sex change, or to be involved in Money’s experiment. Although he was only a baby, his whole life was affected by the decisions of other people.

Perhaps the biggest issue was that Moneys experiment did not only ruin the lives of the whole family, but ultimately lead to the death of the twins. Although the twins offered a perfect sample for Money, as a psychologist he should have respected the rules of ethics and sort other ways to conduct research. However unethical this study was, it could be concluded from the findings that gender roles are biologically innate, with Nature overriding Nurture.

A doctumentary discussing the life of Davied Reimer is available here – http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3767337480016853964

 

References

Diamond, M. & Sigmundson, H. K. (1997) Sex reassignment at birth: a long-term review and clinical implications, Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 152, 298 – 304

Galliher, J. F. (1973) The protection of human subjects: A re-examination of the professional code of ethics, The American Sociologist, Vol 8, 93-100

Kipnis, K. & Diamond, M. (1998) Pediatric Ethics and the Surgical Assignment of Sex, The Journal of Clinical Ethics, Vol 9(4) 398-410

Langevin, R. & Reuben, L. A. (1985) Psychological treatment of paedophiles, Behavioural Sciences and the Law, Vol 3(4), 403 – 419

Money, J. & Ehrhardt, A. A. (1972) Man and woman, boy and girl: Differentiation and dimorphism of gender identity from conception to maturity.

2 responses »

  1. I agree with your point of view as I feel that Money put the parents of Bruce and Brain in an impossible situation with very little help or research to support any of his ideas. He pressured them to commit to a decision that they could not go back on without explaining any of the negative implications this could have on their children. Even though in some studies such as that of Milgram or Zimbardo we tend to forgive them for breaching the ethical guidelines. In this case I feel that Money abused his power as a way of testing his ideas. I feel strongly against this because Money’s participants were children therefore he should of acted with a huge degree of care for their welfare.

  2. One very interesting aspect of this case, is the schizophrenia diagnosis of David Reimer’s twin brother Brian (Crawley, Foley & Shehan, 2008). Given the strongly genetic, and highly heritable nature of schizophrenia (Cardno & Gottesman, 2000), it is worth considering that David was at least a high-risk candidate to develop schizophrenia, and may have suffered from psychotic symptoms. Gottesman and Cardno (2000) demonstrate that in relation to a family member with schizophrenia, there is a 48% increased risk in identical twins, compared to 9% in normal siblings developing schizophrenia. Whilst Dr. Money should be rightfully criticised for ethical negligence, it is possible that some of the blame attributed to him for the tragic death of David Reimer, might have some bearing in psychosis.

    Cardno, A. G., & Gottesman, I. I. (2000). Twin studies of schizophrenia: From bow-and-arrow concordances to Star Wars Mx and functional genomics. American Journal of Medical Genetics, 97, 12-17. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/%28SICI%291096-8628%28200021%2997:1%3C12::AID-AJMG3%3E3.0.CO;2-U/full

    Crawley, S. L., Foley, L. J., Shehan, C. L. (2008). Gendering bodies. Maryland, US: Rowman & Littlefield.

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