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Is there a right not to know one's sex? The ethics of ‘gender verification’ in women's sports competition
  1. Claudia Wiesemann
  1. Correspondence to Dr Claudia Wiesemann, Department of Medical Ethics and History of Medicine, Goettingen University Medical Center, Humboldtallee 36, 37073 Goettingen, Germany; cwiesem{at}gwdg.de

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The paper discusses the current medical practice of ‘gender verification’ in sports from an ethical point of view. It takes the recent public discussion about 800 m runner Caster Semenya as a starting point. At the World Championships in Athletics 2009 in Berlin, Germany, Semenya was challenged by competitors as being a so called ‘sex impostor’. A medical examination to verify her sex ensued. The author analyses whether athletes like Semenya could claim a right not to know that is generally acknowledged in human genetics and enforced by international and national genetic privacy laws. The relevance of this right for genetic diagnosis in sports is discussed. To this end, the interests of the athlete concerned and of third parties are balanced according to the expected benefits and harms.Harm is documented in a number of cases and includes unjustified disqualification, severe sex and gender identity crisis, demeaning reactions, social isolation, depression and suicide. Benefits are dubious as most cases of intersex are considered irrelevant for sports competition. It has to be concluded that the benefits to be gained from ‘gender verification’ in sports via genetic testing do not outweigh the grave individual disadvantages. The current practice of athletic associations to largely ignore the right of competitors not to know does not comply with prevailing ethical provisions on the protection of sensitive personal data. Therefore, genetic ‘gender verification’ in sports should be abolished.

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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