David Reimer: Unethical Sex Change that Destroyed a Family

Ethics in social science research have often been questioned in numerous cases throughout history. However, one of the most significant and remembered cases involved giving a sex change to an unfortunate baby boy who experienced an accidental penis removal during circumcision. David Reimer, a Canadian born in 1965, was brought to a physician’s office at eight months old for this standard and very common procedure. However, instead of using the usual scalpel, physicians decided to use an electrocautery needle, which in turn accidentally burned off David’s penis. Dr. John Money, the psychologist who visited with David’s parents after this horrifying incident, suggested to provide David with a sex change. After deliberation, David’s parents agreed to this idea, while Dr. Money took advantage of this opportunity as a case for research. Without informing the parents, Dr. Money secretly wanted this case to prove his idea that nurturing a child as a male or a female can determine their sexuality, not nature itself.

Dr. Money referred the parents to another doctor in order to surgically construct a vagina on baby David. After the surgery was complete, David’s name was changed to Brenda, and began to receive hormonal supplements for years to come. However, even though Dr. Money labeled this experiment as successful, he chose to ignore and misinform Brenda’s parents of the negative effects, which in turn destroyed the family in the long run. Brenda’s parents never told her about what happened when she was a baby boy, and Brenda remained confused growing up with her desires to act and play like a boy. She was finally told what truly happened to her when she turned fourteen, but her suicidal mother, alcoholic father, and depressed brother led to Brenda remaining in a constant state of pain and confusion. Even after Brenda changed her name back to David, stopped taking hormonal supplements, and went back for another sex change to reconstruct a penis, the pain of life itself never stopped haunting David. At 38 years old, David Reimer committed suicide. Despite all of the complications in this disastrous study, Dr. Money never recorded anything in his research describing the conflicts and downfalls, but remained that the experiment was a complete success. Obviously, in the end, it did not turn out to be successful, but disastrous.

Ethically, who is Dr. Money to decide that the sex of a child should be his choice? He manipulated David’s parents into believing that this would be the best possible decision they could make as a family for their poor baby, and he selfishly used this as an opportunity to put his name in the record books for a possible successful case. His name is definitely in the record books, but not in a favorable way. He is notoriously remembered as the man who destroyed an entire family because of the mere fact that he wanted to create something that would give him intellectual and admirable credit. However, if Dr. Money were still to have suggested this idea to David’s parents, all the while including the possible negative effects that could inflict upon David and their family, it might have given David’s parents the opportunity to find another solution to their son’s problem. Also, if Dr. Money would have recorded the obvious struggles that his case subject David had with his sexuality, it would have at least proven that Dr. Money had at least a little bit of integrity to admit that his experiment was not successful, and should be advised not to perform under these types of circumstances.

If there are any lessons to take away for future researchers, it would be to think about the effects that experiments might have on families if there is any ethical breach that might be present in the study, and to always acknowledge both the positive and negative aspects that occurred or could occur. The research that we are conducting in our Interactive Multimedia Communication class, the Worldplay Research Initiative (WRI), is completely different from this particular case; however, we must remember from this case where we stand as researchers, and to know our ethical limitations when we conduct studies in the gaming industry.

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About hlinn

I am a junior Communications major at Trinity University.
This entry was posted in #5. Ethical research methods, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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