A few years ago, South African sprinter Caster Semenya caused in stir in the sports world when it was found she had intersexed characteristics, including a pair of testes where her ovaries should be that was giving her a hell of a lot more testosterone and muscle than her female counterparts. But scientists have repeatedly said, and it’s an issue once again because of this summer’s Olympics, that testing female athletes for a certain feminine threshold just isn’t cool.
The problem is, where do you draw the line and how much is too much? Yes, Semenya has testes attached to her fallopian tubes, but she also has a vagina and two X chromosomes. She was born that way and she didn’t ask for it and didn’t even know about her innards until international sporting officials started poking around. It’s not like she was injecting testosterone or steroids for a competitive advantage.
Semenya had failed her gender test on account of her intersexed characteristics. Specifically, she has a rare condition in which she has no ovaries, but rather internal testes which are producing large amounts of testosterone. This has led some observers and her fellow competitors to declare that she has an unfair advantage, including one comment that, “These kinds of people should not run with us… For me, she is not a woman. She is a man”.
As a result of the incident, the IAAF created a new policy which states that female athletes with unusually high testosterone levels, a condition known as hyperandrogenism, will be banned from competition unless they undergo surgery or take drugs to lower their levels. The IAAF justified their policy by claiming, “The new regulations rest on the assumption that androgenic hormones (such as testosterone and dihydrotestosterone) are the primary components of biologic athletic advantage.” The IAAF plans on implementing this policy as early as the upcoming London Olympics.
But now, bioethicist Katrina Karkazis and her colleagues have stepped up to say that the policy is flawed on many levels and should be abandoned immediately. The critique was published today in The American Journal of Bioethics.
Karkazis and her team contend that the policy is a violation of an athlete’s privacy and that despite the IAAF’s assurances to the contrary such information could never be kept secret.
They argue that testing for testosterone levels alone is inadequate and completely simplistic — that the IAAF is testing to make sure a female athlete is not “too masculine.” Rebecca Jordan-Young, a member of the panel and co-author of the report, has said, “Individuals have dramatically different responses to the same amounts of testosterone, and it is just one element in a complex neuroendrocrine feedback system.” Moreover, it’s not known what typical testosterone levels even are for elite female athletes.
The Stanford bioethicist also argues that athletic performance cannot be simply boiled down to testosterone levels, citing that performance is much more complicated than that. Moreover, they argue that other athletes have different genetic endowments, including several runners and cyclists who have rare mitochondrial variations that give them extraordinary aerobic capacity, or basketball players who have acromegaly, a hormonal condition that results in exceptionally large hands and feet. These athletes aren’t banned from competition, they argue, and neither should women with elevated levels of testosterone.
Lastly, aside from the prejudicial and potentially sexist nature of the IAAF’s policy, the Karkazis warns that the coerced surgery for these athletes is both extreme and potentially dangerous. “If the athlete does not pass, she is banned from competition until she lowers her testosterone levels,” they write, noting that the treatment options would include pharmaceutical intervention or a gonadectomy - both of which carry serious potential side effects.
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