Was Dr. Money’s research involving David Reimer ethical?

17 Feb

Probably one of the most famous research studies involving sexual reassignment is the case of David Reimer. Dr. Money took advantage of a child’s botched circumcision and suggested sexual reassignment to the family. (smart psych) The family eventually agreed and Dr. Money published lots of work suggesting how nurture defines gender rather nature. (smart psych) This was an outstanding finding as it contradicted a lot of previous research, reporting many beneficial effects.( Lewis, 2000)

But did Dr. Money’s research follow the ethical guidelines of the American Psychological Association (APA) today? I don’t think so. It’s important to follow the APA ethical guidelines for the sake of the client and their treatment. (psychwiki)

Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence. Psychologists attempt to do everything they can to benefit the welfare of the client and avoid the most harm, also in regard to them when making decisions. (APA, 2010)

In Dr. Money’s paper ‘Ablatio penis: normal male infant sex-reassigned as a girl’ it is stated that other babies in the psychohormonal research unit had sexual reassignments, but for birth defect reasons instead. He suggests that they all grew up successfully as their reassigned gender, so maybe it was this which inspired him.  Money (1975) also stated that he gave counselling to the client’s family, implying that he was trying to benefit the family and cared about their welfare.

However, the client was stressed, confused and angry about many issues growing up and was bullied at school. (archive.org) The client’s mother was suicidal and the father was an alcoholic. After the father told the twins the truth about Brenda’s (David’s) sexual reassignment, it wasn’t long before Brenda’s brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. (mindpowernews) It caused so many problems in the client’s life that the client changed back to his original sex. (Lewis, 2000 & Smart Psych) Both twins eventually committed suicide. (Smart Psych) I don’t think Money’s ‘support’ could have harmed the family much more…

So after comparing these two different outcomes of sexual reassignment and how he also lied about the second one, is it likely that the first cases are true? Not really.

Principle B: Fidelity and Responsibility. Psychologists explain their obligations and rules as a professional and take responsibility for their actions. If more knowledge is needed on an issue, they seek advice from other professionals. They are concerned about the professional conduct of their colleagues. (APA, 2010)

I don’t think Dr. Money is taking responsibility for his actions. He now refuses to say anything about his research since he’s been exposed for not reporting evidence against his theory of nurture defining gender. It’s written in Lewis’ (2002) article that “John Money, who declined comment for this article” and this is just one example.

Principle C: Integrity. Psychologists practice truth and accuracy in their work. They try their best to keep promises and avoid commitments which are unclear. (APA, 2010)

There was definitely some truth and accuracy in Money’s (1975) paper, for example, when discussing how Brenda would attempt standing when urinating rather than sitting and how it took longer for her to get out of the habit. However, he failed to report information which went against his nurture theory and never changed to support his theory. For example, the client always wanted to play with boys toys and dress like a boy even though she was now a girl. (Smart Psych) Therefore, his work was not truthful and accurate.

Principle D: Justice. Psychologists ensure all clients can benefit from psychological research and are treated just and fair. They take care in ensuring that their judgements don’t lead to bad practice. (APA, 2010)

Dr. Money gave the client’s family lots of advice and counselling on what to tell other people and how to raise the twins, just like he did with other families in a similar situation. On the other hand, David and his brother reported unethical practise by Money when he photographed them both in sexual positions to encourage gender identities. (smart psych) David felt like has was bullied by Money into being a girl. (archive) So although it seems he attempted to abide by this ethical principle, he appears to have failed using bad practice.

Principle E: Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity. Psychologists respect individuals and ensure all clients confidentiality. They respect differences among individuals such as race or sexual orientation and consider these factors when working individuals. Psychologists try not to involve their own biases on these factors in their work. (APA, 2010)

The family gave consent for the sex change, Dr. Money’s interviews and help to try and convince David, at the time Brenda, she was a girl. Therefore, he does not seem to have violated this principle. However, if it is true what the twins said about taking photographs of them in sexual positions, I doubt the parents would have given consent for him to do that!

In conclusion, Dr. Money’s under-reporting research was not ethical. Not only did the truth show the opposite to what he’s published, but he breached many of today’s ethical guidelines covering all of the ethical principles in some way. Even David and his brother said that Money used unethical practise! However, it must also be said that according to his research, he did attempt to give the family good guidance and counselling on child rearing and got the family’s consent before going ahead with any procedures or interviews etc. There was just too much he should have done better too!



2010 ammended from (the Ethics Code; American Psychological Association, 2002)




Lewis (2000) Reevaluating Sexual Reassignment: Evidence supports nature over nuture in establishing gender identity





Archives of Sexual Behavior, VoL 4, No. 1, 1975 Ablatio Penis: Normal Male Infant

Sex-Reassigned as a Girl John Money






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