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IAAF Creates Rule To Ban Women With Naturally High Testosterone Levels From Competition

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Female athletes who compete in track and field may once again have to watch their testosterone levels. The International Association of Athletics Federations has issued a new rule that bans women with naturally high testosterone levels from competing unless they agree to take medication. Now, the new rule applies specifically to track events from 400 meters up to one mile. It's expected to take effect in November. And it's drawn a lot of criticism, including from Katrina Karkazis. She's a bioethicist and visiting senior fellow at Yale's Global Health Justice Partnership.

Welcome to the program.

KATRINA KARKAZIS: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Now, I understand the last time the IAAF tried to pass a rule like this, it was struck down essentially because the court said, you guys haven't proved that higher testosterone levels actually gives these athletes an advantage. So has something changed here?

KARKAZIS: Something did change. Where that case left off is that there was a two-year suspension of the regulation pending sufficient evidence because the court said there wasn't enough. Instead of return with the evidence for a regulation that would apply to all track and field events, the IAAF came back with a regulation that would only apply to a select few. Because the athlete I worked with doesn't run in those events, she doesn't have a case anymore.

So the case closed, and now the burden once again is on an athlete to bring a case to challenge this regulation.

CORNISH: What are the ethical complications that come from a regulation like this?

KARKAZIS: Well, I think the primary ethical concern is that women are being asked to undergo medically unnecessary interventions in order to continue competing. And these are not benign interventions. You don't lower testosterone in women simply because it's high. So that creates a problem, and I don't think that any woman should be asked to do that. And that was one of Dutee Chand's chief complaints and why she challenged the regulation.

CORNISH: And Dutee Chand is the Indian sprinter who successfully challenged this ban, preventing her from competing in 2015. Meanwhile, the African National Congress has called the new policy racist, saying that it's directed at the South African runner Caster Semenya. What do you think is the basis for this claim? Do you agree with it?

KARKAZIS: I absolutely do. I think Caster Semenya is the target here. She's been a target, actually, of the IAAF since 2009 when she was first investigated at Berlin world championships. So for the better part of 10 years, the IAAF has been constructing regulations that would, in effect, remove her from competition. And I think that's where we're at again. It's a policy that primarily affects black and brown women from the Global South at this moment in history.

CORNISH: The IAAF has essentially said, look, we're not asking people to undergo any kind of surgery. They can compete in other events or they can compete with men. Why aren't those alternatives fair to you?

KARKAZIS: Because to me, they're impossible choices. And I think that they really underestimate the impact and really the insulting nature of those kinds of suggestions. The idea that you would tell a woman that she could go compete with men is - I mean, it's just preposterous. And no matter what, if you change your event or you choose to quit, which some women have, or you lower your testosterone, all of that in one way or another can effectively be the end of your career. So they're false choices in my mind.

And they're the kinds of choices that take a physical toll but also a psychic toll to be told you're not who you say you are.

CORNISH: That's Katrina Karkazis. She's a bioethicist and visiting senior fellow at Yale's Global Health Justice Partnership. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KARKAZIS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.