June 14, 2012

Some bioethicists say "it's unacceptable to ban some female athletes for insufficient femininity."

The IAAF policy bans female athletes with with hyperandrogenism — that is, high testosterone levels — unless they treat their condition with surgery or drugs. The bioethicists are saying this violates the individual's privacy and that "testing for testosterone levels alone is inadequate and completely simplistic."
Rebecca Jordan-Young, a... 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.
Yes, but please address the fact that we do segregate athletes by sex. You're not arguing that we ought to stop doing that. Why do we have 2 categories? I think we know! Women have the disadvantage. Don't tell me about those cyclists and basketball players with an anomaly that gives them an advantage who nevertheless compete with normal men. Tell me about a situation where you've created a special competition — e.g., the Special Olympics — so that athletes with a disadvantage can have a competition. Once you do that, you have to have some rules about who belongs in that separate competition.

Of course, we feel sympathetic when we read about a particular individual with a physical anomaly, like Caster Semenya. But the other individuals in the competition are real people too, and unless you're going to abolish the segregation of women in sports, you need to figure out who belongs in the women's competition. No one ought to care whether an athlete in women's sports seems "feminine" in the social, behavioral sense, but we should make judgments that align with our reasons for having a separate competition for women. Let's talk about what those reasons are. Let's be honest. I mean, what would happen if we just integrated males and females in sports?

35 comments:

BarryD said...

Maybe we need three genders, for the purpose of sports.

chickelit said...

Until she starts to cast her semen, yeh, Caster Semenya is a still woman.

But if she enhanced her testosterone--out!

Nora said...

I agree. Genetics are heavily envolved in sport performance. nobody competes on equal grounds. So to ban women because their genetic make up is unethical. They would not think of banning African runners that have larger lung volumes because they grow up on the highlands of Ethiopia and Somali, whould they.

Hagar said...

This is silly. If you have a penis, you are male; if a vagina, female.
As for requiring athletes to use drugs? Would sheer lunacy be an adequate description? To start with, it is dangerous, since the medical wallahs are far from knowing what all the effects might be, especially on individuals with unusual physical make-ups.
And then, look at the current hullahbaloo over drugs that they aren't all that sure they really can detect, and the punishments dealt out anyway on athletes suspected of using them.

Personally, I feel that there had ought to be an age limit of 21 years old for participating in professional sports - including the olympics - and if the participants want to risk their health by taking drugs, it should be their problem.

Robert Pearson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Pearson said...

The South Park Special Olymics episode (Season 8, Ep. 3) is much more interesting than this debate over manly women. Among Americans, this debate threatens to drive interest in women's track and field even closer to zero.

Everyone can enjoy Cartman on steroids, however.

Sigivald said...

I'm trying to remember if I've ever heard a self-labeled bioethicist ever proclaim something that wasn't either stupid or an unjustified claim of moral judgment.

So far, nope.

(In this case they're right enough that it's "completely simplistic", and the other purely biological points are quite correct, in my understanding ... but that's life. Rules are almost always "completely simplistic" and meant to be easy to apply rather than involving Godlike knowledge and Superlative fairness.

And, most relevantly, competitive athletes have no right to performance-related privacy.

Thus unjustified claim of moral judgment; maybe they're used to areas where simply asserting a right ends argument or convinces people, but ... welcome to the real world.)

Bender said...

Apparently Semenya has more than mere "high testosterone" levels, so that is not the sole criteria here, as asserted by this "bioethicist." Rather, Semenya has testicles, not ovaries, which would make this person more male than female, even if with a malformed (or nonformed) penis and raised as if female.

As for high testosterone levels per se, it is not necessarily natural -- women doping with testosterone is not unheard of (just ask the East Germans).

In any event, if medication to reduce those instances of natural high testosterone is not mandated, then you are effectively requiring those women with normal levels to dope in order to artificially increase their levels just so that they can compete equally.

Hagar said...

Sort of like an Affirmative Action college admissions program?

Bender said...

In other news, has anyone else noticed the high prevalence in reality TV shows of rather manly women? Flipping past a couple of the Real Housewives shows the other day, quite a few looked awfully masculine under all that make-up and rich clothing.

Ken said...

Really, who listens to bioethicists? This is just some made up job that politicians endorse because they can legitimize whatever stance they'd like to take.

Hagar said...

Perhaps it would be better to refrain from doping the athletes and instead imposing a handicap such as running with weights or just adjusting their times by percentages matched to their testosterone levels?

Crunchy Frog said...

Does the presence of a penis qualify as "insufficiently feminine"?

rhhardin said...

Bobby Riggs, after beating Margaret Court in the battle of the sexes, interviewed:

"I've found my sport. Women's tennis."

rhhardin said...

National Lampoon USSR women's athlete, see April cover.

chickelit said...

Crunchy Frog said...
Does the presence of a penis qualify as "insufficiently feminine"?

Remember Andy R's admonition: "I'm not sure why the status of her penis is anyone's business" link

Hagar said...

Has anyone investigated whether any athletes engaged in sports requiring good hand-eye coordination - such as target shooting - have suspiciously high levels of estrogens?

bagoh20 said...

Deciding this is easy:

5 guys
1 stripper pole

bagoh20 said...

Oh, and beer.

To add a bit of compassion.

Q said...

I don't know if we can believe the Daily News, but -

Tests show that controversial runner Caster Semenya is a woman ...and a man!


The 18-year-old South African champ has no womb or ovaries and her testosterone levels are more than three times higher than those of a normal female, according to reports.


The tests, ordered by The International Association of Athletics Federations after Semenya's 800-meter victory in the World Championships, determined she's a hermaphrodite - having both male and female organs.


Why can't they just use a genetics test? If you have two X chromosomes you're a woman, if you have an X and a Y chromosome you're a man.

kimsch said...

On Fox today there was a partially blind tri-athlete. He said that the triathalon groups wanted to "level" the playing field for totally blind tri-athletes by having the partially blind tri-athletes wear glasses to block out their sight because the partially sighted were in the same category as the non sighted and that it wasn't fair to the non sighted that the partially sighted could partially see.

What a crock. All in the name of making something "fair".

Actually as the partially sighted man said on the show, making a partially sighted person non sighted for the event isn't "fair". It doesn't nullify a perceived advantage it actually adds one. The non sighted person is used to being non sighted and doesn't depend on any visual cues. The partially sighted can depend on visual cues and isn't as used to depending solely on aural and/or physical cues.

Crunchy Frog said...

Why can't they just use a genetics test? If you have two X chromosomes you're a woman, if you have an X and a Y chromosome you're a man.

There's a good chance (s)he's XXY. How that's defined I will leave up to the bioethecists.

edutcher said...

Is there a similar case for men with too much estrogen?

(I know, I know...)

Q said...

There's a good chance (s)he's XXY



That's known as Klinefelter's syndrome. Those so afflicted are always males.

Blue@9 said...

This is silly. If you have a penis, you are male; if a vagina, female.

I think you missed the part about it not being that simple because it's not that simple. Semenya doesn't have a penis but in terms of hormones she's pretty much a guy.

I find these topics interesting because the way we've built our society is not very conducive to accomodating these kinds of outliers. These people have always been around, but in the days before internet or easy mass communication it was just hushed up and not talked about. The sport thing isn't that serious because it's recreational and entertainment activity. But the whole stuff about bathrooms and locker rooms and scholarships, that's a bit more serious-- what do we do with people who are neither and both?

Q said...

Semenya doesn't have a penis but in terms of hormones she's pretty much a guy.


She either has two X chromosomes, or an X and a Y Chromosome.

Synova said...

How does one tell which female athlete has a natural testosterone level and which ones are taking testosterone supplements or steroids?

In the case of Castor, I'd heard, I thought, that no one had any notion that she wasn't a normal female, so she found something she was really good at, which had to have been the most wonderful thing, and then it all turns into a scandal and a fight.

I can feel really sorry for her, and it's sure as anything not *fair*, but the rules aren't at all unreasonable.

The fact that she doesn't deserve to have her triumph trashed and her victories taken away, doesn't make it okay to wreck the contest for the other women.

raf said...

To be perfectly fair, after the race is run the winner should be decided by a lottery. That way, everyone has an equal chance of winning.

raf said...

I mean, why should superior genes be allowed to advantage someone? And some people just naturally enjoy physical exertion, which gives them an unfair advantage in training over those who are more naturally inclined toward the horizontal. Not fair!

S said...

Thought 1: << The Court ultimately concludes, and it will henceforth be the Law of the Land, that walking is not a “fundamental” aspect of golf.

Either out of humility or out of self-respect (one or the other) the Court should decline to answer this incredibly difficult and incredibly silly question. To say that something is “essential” is ordinarily to say that it is necessary to the achievement of a certain object. But since it is the very nature of a game to have no object except amusement (that is what distinguishes games from productive activity), it is quite impossible to say that any of a game’s arbitrary rules is “essential.” >>

Perhaps the Supreme Court can decide whether a low testosterone level is "essential."

Thought 2: I assume one of the better arguments for separate women's sports is that, in many sports, women would not be able to compete at the highest level, and we want our little girls to have role models that look like them. Why these role models have to be doing something in which the best men in the world vastly outperform the best women in the world is a bit unclear -- perhaps a better option would be to introduce more competitions in which the top competitors are female, or at least biologically could be (for example, I'm completely guessing here, but it seems likely that most of the top shooters in the world are men, but that this is more a function of culture than of natural abilities).

But I'm also guessing a lot of the fans of ensuring that our girls be able to see athletes who look like them don't even understand the argument when it is used to oppose same-sex marriage. They would point to the fact that we currently permit sterile men to marry women past menopause, so the notion that marriage is currently supportive of procreative relationships must be a red herring - they reject the idea either that fertility testing is simply excessive or that a culture that celebrates procreation can be encouraged by encouraging relationships that look like procreative relationships, even if the couple that looks like grandma and grandpa isn't actually capable of being a grandma and grandpa.

Mind you, I'm tentatively supportive of same-sex marriage and more than tentatively supportive of women's sports. I could explain the former position, but this doesn't seem like the time, and I'm not sure I can argue for the latter.

I think that some Olympic rule-making body should come up with an objective definition of who is eligible for Olympic women's sports - generally consistent with our intuition for what a woman is, but presumably more precise - with the understanding that, yes, there's some arbitrariness and we could have drawn the line somewhere else, but this is the rule we're going with. I like to think Scalia would agree with me.

And, yes, I do recognize that I've basically ducked the question of what the rule should be. I just want to defend, before the fact, whatever rule they settle on, unless it's stupid or arrived at through a corrupt process, which, this being the IOC, I assume it will be.

rhhardin said...

They could have a shopping test.

SGT Ted said...

People with balls are generally not considered to be women.

Since the brouhahahaha is technically over a hermaphrodite, the rule makers have dodged a huge bullet in this case, rather than having to put up with the LGBTQFJIYKWIM "community" up in arms over some tranny being denied entry into womens sports.

Mitch H. said...

Since the brouhahahaha is technically over a hermaphrodite, the rule makers have dodged a huge bullet in this case, rather than having to put up with the LGBTQFJIYKWIM "community" up in arms over some tranny being denied entry into womens sports.

That's rude and inaccurate. From all accounts Semenya is some sort of intersex, not a "tranny".

Frankly, I don't think that gendered sports are intellectually defensible. If you want to insist on gender dimorphism in sports, you're going to have to accept irrational distinctions.

Welcome to the return of tradition, with fire and sword.

And yes, someone with both male and female sex organs (no matter how deformed or nonfunctional) would be excluded on this basis. Screw the hormone levels. And if Semenya is likewise screwed? Oh, well. Life isn't fair.

Marshal said...

This segregation is sexist. Let them compete amongst the men.

Jose_K said...

"woman" athlete charged with rape http://www.indianexpress.com/news/athlete-pinky-pramanik-arrested-on-rape-charges/961938/