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The Boy With No Penis

Doctors strike out again while attempting to play God. Life as a medical experiment ended for one troubled man last week.

CTV - David Reimer, a Winnipeg man born a boy but raised a girl after a botched circumcision, took his own life last week. He was 38.

Reimer, who was baptized Bruce, was raised until the age of 14 as a girl named Brenda on the advice of a sex researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Dr. John Money believed that gender identity was determined more by nurture than nature, and he took Reimer's botched circumcision as an opportunity to try to prove his theory in an experiment known as the John/Joan case in the 1960s and '70s.

Money advised Reimer's parents to give their son female hormones and raise him as a girl. His development was followed closely, and compared to his identical twin brother, Brian, who was raised as a boy.

Reimer's case was touted as proof that gender identity is learned behavior, not a genetic destiny. Advocates postulated that newborns were sexually neutral and their sex could be reassigned. The degree to which this belief permeated modern medical though is, frankly, astounding.

The 'success' of the gender reassignment was very publicly touted. The fact that the patient rejected the reassignment and fought to regain his true gender was completely ignored.

From the notes to As Nature Made Him, the story of David Reimer:

In 1967, after a baby boy suffered a botched circumcision, his family agreed to a radical treatment. On the advice of a renowned expert in gender identity and sexual reassignment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the boy was surgically altered to live as a girl. This landmark case, initially reported to be a complete success, seemed all the more remarkable since the child had been born an identical twin: his uninjured brother, raised as a boy, provided to the experiment the perfect matched control.

The so-called twins case would become one of the most famous in modern medicine and the social sciences; cited repeatedly over the past thirty years as living proof that our sense of being male or female is not inborn but primarily the result of how we are raised. A touchstone for the feminist movement, the case also set the precedent for sex reassignment as standard treatment for thousands of newborns with similarly injured, or irregular, genitals.

But the case was a failure from the outset. From the start the famous twin had, in fact, struggled against his imposed girlhood. Since age fourteen, when finally informed of his medical history, he made the decision to live as a male. John Colapinto tells this extraordinary story for the first time in As Nature Made Him. Writing with uncommon intelligence, insight, and compassion, he also sets the historical and medical context for the case, exposing the thirty-year-long scientific feud between Dr. John Money and his fellow sex researcher, Dr. Milton Diamond--a rivalry over the nature/nurture debate whose very bitterness finally brought the truth to light. A macabre tale of medical arrogance, As Nature Made Him is first and foremost a human drama of one man's-and one family's--amazing survival in the face of terrible odds. The human intimacy of the story is all the greater for the subject's courageous decision to step out from behind the pseudonym that has shrouded his identity for the past thirty years.

He found peace as a man, eventually married and raised stepchildren, but the death of his twin brother and lingering depression finally did him in.

As we venture forward into genetic engineering of humans and designer babies, perhaps it should be mandatory to include medical ethicists in decisions about sexual assignment.


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Comments (8)

Wait, what about the parent... (Below threshold)
AN:

Wait, what about the parents? They just went along with this charade? Doctors ruined this person's life before he... she... he even had a chance and his parents just pretended everything was fine for 14 years? And what a time to spring the news on the kid. "I know you're 14 and in high school and doing the puberty thing and all but guess what..." Right. If I had a boy and a doctor "botched" the circumcision I would most likely start to wonder where this idiot got his degree and you better believe I would be calling every newpaper in the state the second he even thought of making my child live thier life as the other gender. Those parents and that doctor need someone to smack them in the heads.

AN, you asked the question ... (Below threshold)

AN, you asked the question that occurred to me, too. I wonder if the parents were bullied into going along with this experiment. Obviously, they were probably grieving and in shock about the botched circumcision.

What a sad event. May his soul rest in peace.

This sounds like yet anothe... (Below threshold)

This sounds like yet another case of a doctor with an agenda going to pretty sick lengths to prove a theory.
And parents are often pretty much bulldozed by doctors, figuring that the doctor must know best. That kinda thing.
Not that the parents are blameless.
Just one more reason in my folder of many to leave our children uncut, if we wind up having boys.

I saw a documentary about t... (Below threshold)
Fritz:

I saw a documentary about this a couple of years ago.

The parents were like most people at the time, undereducated about medicine and respectful of physicians. The world has changed quite a bit since the 1960s and we shouldn't judge the parents by today's standards.

I am an identical twin and the documentary really disturbed me.

I know that if I lost my twin, it would be almost too much for me to bear. I can't imagine how it would be for someone who had already faced the challenges that David Reimer experienced.

I agree with Fritz. I don'... (Below threshold)

I agree with Fritz. I don't judge the parents here. They were clearly trying to do what was best for their child, and they followed the advice of a doctor who was pushing an agenda that sought to overcome years of entrenched thinking on "gender" and sex.

He was most likely wrong. But that's hardly the parents' fault.

Stay away from a mohel with... (Below threshold)

Stay away from a mohel with Parkinsons...

[rimshot]

And what about the arroganc... (Below threshold)

And what about the arrogance of hacking around on an infant's penis?

If someone wishes to do that himself, as an adult, for whatever reason -- it is his decision. This child had the decision taken from him.

What a very sad ending to a... (Below threshold)
Joanne:

What a very sad ending to a tragic life. Poor David, may he finally rest in peace*




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