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.

I Never Sausage A Thing
Hail Mary Martha

8 Comments

  1. AN May 10, 2004
  2. Lachlan May 10, 2004
  3. Tazja May 10, 2004
  4. Fritz May 10, 2004
  5. Jeff G May 10, 2004
  6. Aaron's Rantblog May 10, 2004
  7. Claire May 12, 2004
  8. Joanne May 12, 2004