Let Harrison Bergeron Dance

by Patricia Mayer, MD, Bioethics Program Alumna (2009)

All I can think of when reading the case of Indian sprinter Dutee Chand is Harrison Bergeron, protagonist of a 1961 short story by author Kurt Vonnegut.

For those of you who don’t know who Dutee Chand is, she is a Indian sprinter who was banned from the 2014 Commonwealth Games because her testosterone level was “too high”. Unlike other athletes who use banned substances to achieve this, Ms. Chand’s testosterone levels were not artificially elevated. She was not “doping” by taking testosterone supplements, and there are no accusations of her “not being a woman”. She simply produces high levels of testosterone naturally.

Although testosterone is known as the male sex hormone. It plays a key role in male reproductive development, as well as such secondary sexual characteristics such as increased muscle and bone mass. But testosterone is present in all persons, both men and women. Men generally have higher levels than women, but levels can vary between individuals of both sexes. Some men have low levels and some women have high levels, and vice versa. In some cases in which men and women also have “abnormal” levels, it can be the result of genetic factors or other medical conditions. In Dutee’s case, she is reported to have hyperandrogenism.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) prevented Ms. Chand from competing in the 2014 Commonwealth Games because it felt that her naturally elevated levels of testosterone gave her an unfair advantage over the other female athletes. But the link between testosterone level and athletic prowess is tenuous at best. There is no evidence that women with high testosterone are better athletes than women with lower levels. Many factors go into athletic success including training, drive, and determination, to name but a few. Still, the IAAF has set a testosterone level of 10 nmol/liter as the upper level at which they will allow women to compete in professional competitions.

So what if a woman like Dutee’s testosterone level are naturally higher? Should they be required to do something to lower it below 10 nmol/liter in order to compete? Will otherwise health women be forced to undergo surgery, use drugs or take hormonal suppressants in order to “level the playing field”?

The fact of the matter is that athletic playing field has never been level. It can’t be. There are, for example, genetic differences that make some people outstanding in one sport or another. Michael Phelps is said to have a “body made for swimming glory”. Usain Bolts’ height and high percentage of fast twitch fibres drive his speed in the track. Gabby Douglas’s diminutive stature contribute to her prowess in gymnastics. Shall we alter Phelps physique? Remove some of Bolt’s fast twitch muscles? Administer growth hormone to make Gabby taller? All these interventions would potentially “level the playing field,” but all are crazy.

Which brings me back to Harrison Bergeron. Kurt Vonnegut’s famous short story begins:

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Each person in that society was required to wear handicapping contraptions to offset natural traits that might make him, in some way, “better than” somebody else.

Harrison Bergeron…is a genius and an athlete, is under-handicapped… scrap metal was hung all over him… Harrison looked like a walking junkyard. In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds.

And in case you’ve not read the story or have forgotten the ending, let me recap: Harrison throws off his handicaps and dances … until he is shot dead by the Handicapper General.

Let Harrison dance. And let Dutee run.

[The contents of this blog are solely the responsibility of the author and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]



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