Hazel McHaffie

ethical dilemmas

Gender, sex, chromosomes and other details

In our family, the two generations below me are runners. With the Edinburgh Marathon Festival in a matter of days now, we’re all gearing up – in my case just to be there at as many vantage points as possible to cheer them on as usual. In their case to be in peak condition to stay the course and surpass their personal bests. And this year is exceptional in that one of them (son-in-law) is doing the 5K, followed by the 10K on the Saturday, then the half marathon followed by the full marathon on the Sunday. Now, that’s keen! Super fit. Totally focused.

Although the competitors all run together, divided at the starting point into bands according to speed and ability, the results are announced by gender – fastest male, fastest female. So, X and Y genes do matter! But what if there are question marks over one’s gender? And that’s what’s preoccupying part of the sporting world at this precise moment. The male-female definition isn’t as binary as people used to think; about 1.7% present with atypical patterns of chromosomes and biological characteristics. And the South African runner, Caster Semenya, is caught in this hazy overlap.

It seems that all her life Caster has been portrayed as ‘a frea’. Imagine the burden of that!  As a youngster, she grew accustomed to having to show her genitalia to a coach before a race. The mind boggles. And since she rose to fame as a gifted athlete her success has been overshadowed by doubt, vilification and abuse. As it’s reported anyway, she was born intersex. But she was brought up as, and identifies as, a female. In the sporting world however, now she’s an adult, there are questions about her right to compete as a woman. She produces unusually high levels of testosterone. Such a fact must be difficult enough to deal with in one’s own local community; but because she’s an Olympic champion gold medallist, and because these results got into the wrong hands, her personal information has been paraded world-wide. And now she has – again publicly – lost her case to compete in her natural state. Henceforth she must take medication to lower her testosterone levels if she wishes to race against women. No one knows what that medication would/will do to her, but in her world every second counts.

Shutterstock image

This is about much more than justice in sport; it raises huge ethical questions. In Caster’s case, the Court of Arbitration for Sport has decided the rights of the individual must be sacrificed to ensure the welfare of the majority. They say their decision is ‘necessary, reasonable and proportionate’ in the interests of fairness. Is it? From her rivals’ point of view, I’m sure we can all appreciate that it does seem unjust to lose to someone with such a huge inbuilt biological advantage. But what about other athletes with inbuilt advantages – eg. swimmer Michael Phelps with his massive arm span and double-jointed ankles and low production of lactic acid which means he doesn’t tire as quickly as ordinary men? Should he have been disqualified?

And what about Caster’s own perspective? After being cruelly ridiculed for her body all her life, here was something she naturally excelled at, for which she trained hard, and now she’s being denied the opportunity to compete as the woman she is. Lose, lose. What a monumental injustice this must seem. In fact she’s shown immense dignity in the face of this latest humiliation. She admits to feeling upset and degraded by this ‘unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details’ of her very being. At the moment she’s contemplating leaving the arena. ‘I’m finished’ she tweeted when the ruling came through. ‘Knowing when to walk away is wisdom. Being able to is courage. Walking away with your head held high is dignity.’ How desperately sad.

Why do I talk about this case on my blog this week? Partly because the questions it raises have been exercising my mind, and partly because it’s another example of the reality that there are very few absolute black and whites in the world of ethics – my world! And that’s before you start factoring in transgender athletes and self-assignment of gender and competing interests and … It goes on and on. Scrambles the mind, doesn’t it?

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‘A time to rejoice …’

Hey … time methinks for a completely undemanding, totally positive, uncomplicated post. I’ve given you some pretty heavy duty stuff lately, I know.

But … give your brain a rest, and let’s just celebrate this week. My latest book is now PUBLISHED!!

Here’s what it looks like:

Here’s what it’s about:
Professor Jocelyn Grammaticus is travelling on the 8.20 CrossCountry train from Aberdeen to Penzance. (If you’ve never tried it, think twice before you do! – it takes almost thirteen and a half hours.) But for Jocelyn it’s more than a long sit – she’s facing the hardest ethical dilemma of her life when she arrives in Cornwall. To distract herself, she sets about writing a keynote speech due for a conference the following week, and all unwittingly the assorted passengers who flit in and out of Coach C give her food for thought. But four hours before she arrives a phonecall stops her in her tracks. Will she be in time? Will she have the moral courage to fulfil her promise?

Loads of people have asked me about the underlying theme, so if that aspect intrigues you too, it’s about informed consent. But don’t let that put you off if you’re just looking for a diverting read. Listen out for the manager who joins the train from Newcastle to York; I’d love him to accompany me! Listen to the chatter … listen to your own heart and conscience …

Oh and I should warn those of you who are familiar with my work, this book is different from my previous ones:
– it’s much shorter – classifies as a novella really.
– it’s only available in electronic form.
– we’re offering it as a FREE download. Just click here to start the process.

Do let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you – no flannel, only honest feedback, please.

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Real life ethical challenges – alive and well

Wow! The year has begun with a bang as far as medical ethics is concerned. Lots to challenge us.

Just in one day this week we had the news that …

Every secondary school in England is to be offered training to help them identify and support children who are suffering from mental illness – a government-led initiative. Mrs May describes it as a first step in a plan to transform the way we deal with mental health in this country. There’s a long way to go but this is at least a concrete measure. Is it the right one, d’you think?

A terminally ill man with Motor Neurone Disease who fears becoming entombed in his own body has asked judges to allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs for him without fear of prosecution. Sound familiar? Well, actually it’s the first case of its kind for 3 years would you believe – surprised me to learn that too. Should he be allowed this option? Is the UK ready for change? Where would it lead?

There’s been a rise in demand for live-in au pairs for elderly folk. It’s an attractive alternative for some to going into residential care. OK, I’m listening! And it comes amidst the controversies over standards in care homes and the soaring costs involved. But of course it comes at a price. And it inevitably excludes some people. Will it take off? Should it?

Viscount and Lady Weymouth have become the first members of the British aristocracy to have a baby carried and delivered by a surrogate mother. Apparently Emma Weymouth has a rare condition which puts her at high risk of having a stroke during labour; she suffered a brain haemorrhage and an endocrine disorder during her first pregnancy. This was deemed the safest way for them to ‘complete’ their family. But of course it has higher significance to an ancient lineage like the Longleat Bath family than to the average couple. Any thoughts?

After lengthy wrangling, judges have decided that a Gulf War veteran, policeman, and father of one, aged just 43, should be taken off life support and allowed to die, in line with his expressed wishes. His wife sees it as a final act of love. Others decry it as the thin end of the wedge to denying the sacredness of life. Where do you stand?

As I’ve said before, I shall never run out of material for my writing. And this ongoing interest in my subject spurs me on.

NEWSFLASH: Yesterday I completed the first draft of novel number 10. Wahey! Drum roll, please. It’s about a professor of Medical Ethics going on a train journey from Aberdeen to Penzance to deal with a crisis in her own family, but encountering all sorts of challenges along the way. The most fun of all my books to write so far, but I still cried at one point!

 

 

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Slippery slopes

Anybody who’s given some thought to ethical dilemmas will have come across the old slippery slope argument. Quick intake of breath. Oooh, no. Once you allow … or …, the whole of society will slide into decadence and ruin. Don’t even venture a toe there.

I’ve been tiptoeing through the mountains and forests of philosophy and ethics for rather a long time now, and some of the old chestnuts can taste rather stale at times. So I was delighted to hear a novel illustration used to refute the danger of slippery slopes in relation to assisted dying.

The occasion was a debate on the subject at the Royal Society of Edinburgh last week. No less than Professor AC Grayling was speaking (I’ve long been in awe of his way with words).

He said, if someone gave him a carrot he didn’t refuse to eat it because of the risk of having to eat a million carrots.

Brilliant!

For me it was the highlight of the evening. So I thought this week I’d share that smile with you, and perhaps at the same time modify my putative reputation as a pedlar of serious and sad!

Just in case you’re interested, the audience voted overwhelmingly in favour of assisted dying: 77 to 3 before the debate, 68 to 11 after it. What do you make of that?

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The 2011 Census

It ought to feel like an auspicious moment in history, but somehow filling in squares with a biro pen, or tapping keys on the computer before despatching data for the 2011 Census into the ether, doesn’t have the aura of ‘momentous’ about it.2011 census form

I couldn’t help comparing my neat sterile form with my grandfather’s entries 100 years ago.1911 census Scratched with a blotchy nibbed pen, mistakes scored out, hardly legible … but so much more evocative of an era. We discovered this gem while doing my mother’s life history a few years ago, and it conjured up amazing pictures of a generation when life was very different indeed.

It’s easy to romanticise the past, but in reality life was hard for many people.My grandparents with some of their family in 1926My grandfather, for example, born in 1874, was orphaned as a small child, and started work at 10 years of age. He and his wife had twelve children, four of whom died in infancy. My mother was the youngest of the twelve, born 25 years after the eldest boy. In spite of the size of the brood and the fact that his wife was a frail woman, my grandfather was a largely absent father – away at the war, or travelling to where work was to be found.

Hard it may have been, but what wonderfully rich seams they’d be to mine for novels! What happened to his parents? How did a ten year old cope with work? What did he get up to away from home so much? Why did he lose touch with his remaining children after his wife’s death? My mother had stories to tell that make my conventional life pale into insignificance. But there was still oodles of room to speculate about the gaps in her knowledge and memory.

Maybe I should change tack and start spinning historical novels! But, of course, the medical ethical dilemmas back then weren’t a patch on those we confront today. Our forebears simply wouldn’t comprehend the astonishing conundrums and questions science and medicine conjure up in this 21st century. Stem cell therapy, legally assisted death, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, cloning, beating-heart organ donation, not to mention modern cures and treatments undreamed off a hundred years ago … they’d recoil in disbelief. No, I’m not going to run out of material any day soon if I stick with this theme.

Thinking of the wealth of history wrapped up in previous generations, though, reminds me of the record of our lives the grandchildren are owed. It’s a task that keeps getting deferred. One of these days it might be too late.

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