Bioethics & “Three Identical Strangers”

By Neil Skjoldal

I recently had the opportunity to watch the 2018 documentary Three Identical Strangers, which tells the story of triplets Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland, and David Kellman.  They were separated shortly after birth in the 1960s and adopted by three different families through the Louise Wise adoption agency in New York City.  The way they happen to find out about each other in 1980 is fascinating.  It created a media sensation at the time, including an appearance on The Phil Donahue Show.

The documentary starts by sharing their thrill of discovery, which included the many similarities that the brothers have, even though they spent the first 19 years of life apart.  However, it eventually moves to some of the larger and darker questions that lingered for each of the adoptive families—the biggest of which was, “Why weren’t we told that there were siblings?”  And as you might suspect, the agency representatives did not provide many helpful answers.  The parents’ feelings of anger and bewilderment resonated with me as an adoptive parent.

Eventually the brothers came to find out that they were part of a “twins study” conducted by noted psychologist, Peter Neubauer.   The study involved the brothers being interviewed and filmed individually every year through the first few years of their lives, with them not knowing that their brothers even existed.  Their parents were told it was a study of adopted children, not a study of twins.

The documentary leaves little doubt where it stands on the ethics of this matter.  From some of those interviewed, it appears that the purpose of the study was to address the classic “nature vs. nurture” question.  However, the harm done to these brothers (and the others who were unknowingly involved in the study), making them feel like ‘lab rats,’ undermines any positive value that the study may have had.  That Neubauer’s research remains sealed at Yale until 2066 adds fuel to the fire that something unethical was done.

In a blog post on www.psychologytoday.com, Dr. Leon Hoffmann asks whether it is reasonable to expect researchers of previous generations to follow our contemporary standards.  He asserts that both the original researchers and the producers of the documentary are guilty of self-deception.  This is a point worth considering as we look back; however, this case is from the 1960s and those impacted are still very much alive.

It is difficult for me to disagree with the assessment of reviewer Neta Alexander of www.haaretz.com:  “’Three Identical Strangers’ is thus a faithful representation of the spirit of the times. It’s about the way in which the authorities and those with power – headed by a charismatic and respected psychologist – abuse their powers in the name of science.”  Three Identical Strangers stands as a timely reminder that there should be safeguards and limits to research.

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