Sunday, May 16, 2004


David Reimer was hailed by scientists as a triumph of nurture over nature. But as his suicide shows, this was a terrible mistake

Yes we'd all like to think that wouldn't we--so now this story of a boy who had his penis chopped off in a botched circumcision, whose parents were persuaded to have him castrated and raised as a girl, was a feminist experiment that failed. But let's consider the facts:

(1) As an experiment is was a botch. There was no double blind--the parents knew he was really a boy and soon the David (a.k.a. Brenda) discovered what happened. It wasn't part of an extensive study of twins where one was sex changed and the other wasn't--which would have been grossly unethical but a gratuitous intervention in one case that couldn't have had any scientific value anyway.

(2) Dr John Money, at Johns Hopkins Medical school when I was there as a grad student in Arts and Sciences, was not a feminist ideologue aiming to show that nurture would trump nature. On the contrary: his aim was to justify his program of sex change operations on the grounds that psychological gender was innate and unchangeable, that it usually matched physiological sex, but that in those rare cases where it didn't transsexual surgery was the best option. If anything his aim would have been to show that in a case where the surgery was performed on an individual who showed no signs of sex-gender mismatch it would have resulted in exactly this sort of disaster.

Scientists never hailed this case as a triumph of nurture over nature. In fact Dr. Money was asked by the administration at the Johns Hopkins Medical School to stop doing these operations

(3) The spin on the story was that David's suicide showed that the experiment was a failure--nature triumphed. But later in the article we read that he was depressed because his non-sex-changed twin brother had committed suicide 2 years earlier. If we can infer anything from one case it should be that it wasn't the sex-gender mismatch he had to cope with as a child that resulted in his suicide. Either both twins were genetically predisposed to depression and that resulted in both suicides or, more likely, that the stress of dealing with the aftermath of this experiment botched things for everyone involved.

(4) David, we read, didn't like being brought up as a girl. But lots of physiologically normal girls don't like being brought up as girls--that's why there are feminists.

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