Remembering Trauma: The Ethical Implications of Memory Dampening for Sexual Assault Survivors



Denton, Sarah W

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Healthcare providers are increasingly treating sexual assault survivors with memory dampening neurotechnology to alleviate psychiatric conditions caused by sexual assault (Cabrera 2011). However, the effects of memory dampening on the selfnarratives— particularly the narratives of sexual assault survivors—has not received much attention in the neuroethics literature. In this paper, I explore the ethical implications of treating sexual assault survivors with memory dampening neurotechnology. Although treating sexual assault survivors with memory dampening technology seems consistent with the ethical obligation to promote patient welfare, and other ethical principles such as fidelity and responsibility (APA 2013, Moses and Illes 2017), I argue that treating sexual assault survivors with this method may generate harm. Memory dampening treatments for sexual assault may generate harm by perpetuating a reductionist view of the psychiatric problems resulting from sexual assault. A reductionist view misunderstands the problem of sexual assault as a strictly medical problem requiring medical interventions, rather than as a social problem that encompasses gender norms. The psychiatric problems resulting from sexual assault are not merely rooted in emotional dysregulation. Rather, these psychiatric problems are also contingent on one’s social environment. Sexual assault impacts survivors in a variety of ways that are best understood in a social context. For example, stigma, problems creating and maintaining meaningful relationships, and moral injury are all relational harms that negatively impact how survivors relate to others in their social environment (Miller 2009, Nazarov et al. 2015). In a social context, sexual assault survivors construct their idea of who they are as persons through narration (Nelson 2001). Healthcare providers may be increasingly tempted to view sexual assault survivors through the lens of the reductionist model and apply memory dampening treatments. Yet, without addressing the social context of sexual assault, such interventions may exacerbate harm instead of relieving it. I argue that a more appropriate and ethically defensible response to treating psychiatric conditions associated with sexual assault is to situate survivors and their treatment in their social context. This allows healthcare providers to treat sexual assault survivors by crafting counterstories to the biographical narratives that harm sexual assault survivors in the social context, rather than using memory dampening interventions to affect the emotional coloring of the autobiographical narratives of sexual assault.


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Sexual assault, Memory dampening, Propranolol, Relational harm, Narrative, Moral injury