Saturday, June 30, 2012

Stanford bioethicist challenges Olympics gender-testing policy

A Stanford bioethicist has challenged a controversial new gender-testing policy adopted by the International Olympic Committee, saying it lacks scientific credibility and could lead to discrimination against women who don't conform to traditional notions of femininity.
Medical anthropologist Katrina Karkazis made the comments Sunday in an opinion piece in the New York Times. She also recently co-authored a story in the American Journal of Bioethics criticizing the policy that was adopted over the weekend.
Olympic officials approved new regulations to test for natural testosterone levels to determine whether an athlete should be eligible to compete as a woman in time for next month's London Games.
The updated policy comes in response to South African runner Caster Semenya, who won the 2009 world title in the 800 meters by an astonishing two seconds over her closest challenger. Some competitors raised concerns about Semenya's muscular body and deep voice, leading track and field officials to order sex testing.
The International Association of Athletics Federations, the worldwide governing body for track and field, eventually ruled that Semenya is eligible to compete as a woman. But the handling of the case has been a public relations nightmare because of the criticism it generated.
Mandatory gender testing of Olympic athletes began in the 1960s and has been a hotly debated topic pitting the concept of a level playing field

against an athlete's right to privacy.
IOC officials eliminated sex testing a decade ago because of the inadequacies of relying on a single trait such as chromosomes to verify gender. The last mandatory gender-verification tests were administered at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta where officials allowed seven women to compete despite determining they were genetically male.
Olympic officials decided they could better determine how to draw the line between male and female by comparing testosterone levels. Testosterone is a hormone that promotes male sexual characteristics such as muscle and body hair.
The IOC's new policies will require female athletes whose sex is being challenged to undergo tests for levels of testosterone. Women with high levels of the hormone could be banned from competition.
Karkazis, a senior research scholar at Stanford's Center for Biomedical Ethics, challenged the use of testosterone testing.
"We don't even know what typical testosterone levels are for elite females," she said.
Rebecca Jordan-Young, the co-author in the bioethics journal and Times' stories, added that it is difficult to make decisions based on testosterone levels because individuals have dramatically different responses to the same amounts of the hormone.