Hazel McHaffie

female athletes with high testosterone levels

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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Splinter the Silence

In Splinter the Silence, Val McDermid explores the issue of internet trolling/hate mail/harassment/villification/abuse of women who put their heads above the parapet to speak about discrimination and injustice. In this fictional case, the public figures are apparently hounded to the point of suicide, although the reader knows from the outset that they are actually being murdered, each killing disguised to mimic the suicides of famous feminists. The murderer has his own reasons for objecting to women who step outside their domestic role and tell men what’s right or wrong.

Well, sadly, I know people in real life who would still tether women to the kitchen sink if they could. I have myself come in for criticism for being a woman and daring to voice and defend an opinion; for having ideas above my subservient station. Fortunately, positive responses have far, far outweighed the negative, so it hasn’t been that difficult to maintain perspective, but then, I’m not an A-list celebrity, so such pernicious or malicious activities don’t hit the headlines, the number of critics doesn’t reach stratospheric levels. Nevertheless, I can vouch for the discomfort of being on the receiving end of such unjust vitriol. It’s not as far fetched as you might imagine.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the matter of standing up and being accountable, and about all the cases coming to public attention right now that lend themselves to strong column inches. I’ll itemise a few, but please note, I have no privileged access to information on any of them, so the facts I include are as subject to distortion and prejudice as any other media-generated stories.

OK, serious time, folks. And in every case multiply the questions many times over.

Ten days after legally completing his transition from female to male, a transgender man, TT, underwent intrauterine insemination, resulting in a pregnancy. He has now taken his case to the High Court in an effort to be the first to have no ‘mother’ registered on the birth certificate. Hello? ‘Cake’ and ‘eat’ instantly spring to mind. Expensive legal and parliamentary resources are to be deployed to look into the ramifications of the current laws governing fertility treatment.
One British doctor is reported as saying, now that it is medically possible to transplant a womb into biological males, it would be illegal to deny them access to this opportunity to carry a child to birth. What do you think? Would it?
What about the rights of the unborn child?
One author of a letter to the Telegraph outlined the scenario and concluded, ‘The lunatics truly have taken over the asylum.‘ Do you agree? Or is this a case of establishing the deep-seated needs of people who have struggled all their lives with their dysphoria?

Then there’s the issue of rights and dignity and bodily integrity and mental welfare of female athletes with naturally high testosterone levels? Renewed calls have been made for such women to be given drugs to lower their levels before they compete, or for them to be channelled into other categories such as intersex competition.
What about the effect on these sportswomen of the abuse and accusations levelled at them?
Is it a fair playing field?
Other scientists have cast serious doubt on the integrity of the research behind this latest demand; how many people either know of this or have the scientific or mental wherewithal to judge the issue fairly?

Exactly four years ago, on their half-term break, Shamima Begum and two school friends fled this country, aged only 15, to join Isil and become jihadi brides. In those years, Begum has borne three children, two of whom died of illness and malnourishment. She has told the world she doesn’t regret her actions, that she was unfazed by the sight of severed heads, that’s she’s into retaliation, but wants to bring baby number three back to her home country.
We have no way of knowing just how much coercion lies behind her public pronouncements, but her responses to interviewers chill the blood. The government have refused to jeopardise more lives by sending anyone to rescue her, but at first the lawyers told us, she’s a British citizen, she cannot be rendered stateless, so legally speaking, there is no choice; we must have her back. Then a couple of days later we hear that no, the government are not obliged to repatriate her … and indeed the Home Secretary has revoked her British citizenship … she has dual Bangladeshi nationality … the baby has a Dutch father  …
What consequences should this girl’s actions have?
Whose rights take precedence?
What kind of a future lies in front of her or her baby son?
Who should assume responsibility?
Is it a measure of our own more civilised behaviour that we rise above the terrorists’ creed and show compassion now towards this girl?
What of all the other people who’ve dabbled in terrorism but who now want to return?And a zillion other questions.
No wonder opinion is divided.

Retired accountant, 80-year-old Geoff Whaley, diagnosed with MND two years ago, decided that an agonising and undignified death was not for him; he would go to Dignitas in Switzerland for a controlled end to his life. But his careful planning was threatened days before his proposed departure by the appearance of police at his door, interviewing his wife of 52 years under caution, in response to an anonymous tip-off. It was this unwelcome intrusion, coupled with the laws of this country opposing assisted suicide, not his impending suicide, that engendered fear and anguish in this man, provoking him to protest to the BBC and MPs:
‘The law in this country robbed me of control over my death. It forced me to seek solace in Switzerland. Then it sought to punish those attempting to help me get there. The hypocrisy and cruelty of this is astounding.’
Put aside for a moment your personal views on assisted dying, and ask, what could possibly have motivated someone to blow the whistle in this way at the Whaley’s eleventh hour? Genuine concern, self-righteousness, extreme religious views, a sense of public duty, malice? Or what?
Should other people’s private scruples be allowed to control the rights of families in such tragic circumstances?

Imagine being born in war-ravaged Yemen, stranded in a hospital in a country where social, political, economic and health care systems have all collapsed, where about half of the 28 million inhabitants are living on the brink of famine. Now add to that the babies being conjoined twins. Their picture appeared in the British press; the Yemeni doctors appealing for help from the UN to get them to Saudi Arabia.
What should our response be?
What is our responsibility in such cases?
What chance did they realistically have?
At least 6,800 civilians have been killed and 10,700 injured in the war, according to UN statistics. Did these two extremely vulnerable boys warrant such an exceptional rescue mission?
In the event they died in their homeland, but the questions remain.

I could go on … and on …

All the youngsters who become victims of disturbing material on line … the BBC being criticised for not offering abortion advice after an episode of Call the Midwife featuring a backstreet abortion … impecunious students being paid to contract dangerous tropical diseases like typhoid and malaria in the search for new effective vaccines … the matter of a 97-year-old Duke of Edinburgh flouting the country’s law on the wearing of seatbelts …

I have opinions on all these issues. You don’t have to listen to me. You are perfectly entitled to disagree with me – fundamentally and even vociferously. But you ought not to shut me up! Especially not in a threatening or damaging way.

 

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