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12/08/2010

How Far We Have Come (and Have Not): Children, Sex, and Gender

In 1965, two twin boys were born, Brian and Bruce. At six months, one of them began to have trouble with urination and had a circumcision which was unfortunately incorrectly performed, leaving his genitalia non-functional.

This forced his parents to make a tough decision about sex assignment. Ultimately, they had to answer a question ultimately that seems primitive in this day and age: “Could we really raise a little boy without a penis?”

The Reimer’s decided they could not and took the advice of one Dr. Money who believed that nurture would overcome nature if Bruce’s parents simply raised him as Brenda. Luckily Dr. Money could study his hypothesis because “Brenda” had a twin. The experiment went on for 9 years during which time Dr. Money saw that “Brenda” was “more neat” than his brother and more feminine in other ways.

Clearly the Reimer’s hadn’t thought ahead to puberty, prom or the problems that would certainly ensue if “Brenda” liked girls, as she likely would. Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on therapy to help “Brenda” adjust, the family spent it on surgery and then let “nurture” take its course.

Ultimately “Brenda” by the time she was a teenager was suicidal. He threw off his imposed feminine gender role and embraced the identity of David, but never recovered from the knowledge that his life was one large psychological experiment. He committed suicide a few years ago.

Would we let parents make this same choice today? Would research like this take place?

This case reminds me of another much more recent case that I wrote about right here on blog.bioethics.net--the story of “Pop”, the child being raised “gender-free” by his/her Swedish parents. Perhaps Pop’s parents didn’t know about Brenda/Bruce/David Reimer. But they should. Some may argue that being raised with the opposite gender forced upon you is worse than having no gender association at all, but I don’t think so. If Pop’s parents are even remotely successful in experimenting on their child the way Dr. Money was with Mr. Reimer, I fear that Pop may suffer similar psychological damage.

From 1965 to 2010, haven’t we learned that children, sex and gender isn’t something to toy with?

Summer McGee, PhD

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