Genetics, Bioethics & Sport (2007)


Miah, A. (2007) Genetics, Bioethics & SportSport, Ethics and Philosophy, 1(2), 146-158

In part, the reasons for wanting to defend gene-doping emerge out of my concern for the methodological limitations of anti-doping and the desire to see anti-doping embrace a broader bioethical debate about genetics, the ethics of enhancement and the use of medicine in sport more generally. The kinds of arguments that have emerged in the last 40 years of bioethical discussion have not informed the ethical discussion about doping in sport very much at all, which seems very unfortunate. Within academic ethical debates, neither have links been made to critical developments in bioethics. For example, despite numerous allusions to the importance of establishing the value of ‘humanness’ as a basis for what makes sport special, there have been nearly no references to bioethical discussions about humanness, dignity or personhood. This is not to say that anti-doping has been critically informed by academic debates in the philosophy of sport either. Far from it. Part of the explanation for this is historical, though much more of it would appear to be institutional. Sport philosophers have rarely published in medical journals and scientists concerned about ethics have rarely engaged with (and are often dismissive of) sport ethics or bioethics. Yet sport offers a particularly rich context where one can develop an ethical critique of genetic technology (Miah 2004; Tamburrini and Ta¨nnsjo¨ 2005). In this sense, philosophy of sport offers something useful to the development of bioethics, as the references to it suggest. For one thing, the global context of sport raises challenging philosophical issues about the universality of moral principles – are sport ethics universal? In a world that remains befuddled by the human cloning debate and the internationality of ethics related to human genetics, WADA is bypassing that confusion and asserting what is right and proper for humans by prohibiting gene-doping on the basis of a contested assumption that there are unified codes of ethics in sport.

The prospect of gene-doping can make it impossible to avoid making these connections between bioethics and sport ethics. Inevitably, any policy concerning the use of genetic technology in sport will find itself beholden to broader bioethical policies about the use of gene transfer technology. For example, in a world that permits the use of gene transfer technology for therapeutic purposes, it would be inconceivable that sports authorities could prohibit such athletes from competition, just because they were genetically modified. In this respect, gene-doping is unlike any other method of performance enhancement in sport. Moreover, the world of sport is reacting to genedoping in a way that is unparalleled by any other form of doping. For once, it has an opportunity to derive ethical guidelines before the technology is realised, a problem that has inhibited much of its strategy for other methods of doping.

Yet, there are good reasons for avoiding the straightforward classification of genetic modification as any other form of doping, which I have tried to outline here. None of the discussions about gene doping have even considered the debates  taking place in the AAAS, the ALRC or the US President’s Council. Yet, each of these organisations presents quite different accounts of the critical ethical issues arising from gene technology in sport. If the WADA prohibition can be seen as a precautionary statement, then this need not be a lost opportunity to use gene-doping as a means to reevaluating what matters in sport, bearing in mind that it might have changed since antidoping began.

However, the ethical debate about gene-doping must take place on a far wider scale, and anti-doping policy-makers must be prepared to accept that it might be a far better strategy to seek ways of legitimising such methods of performance enhancement rather than ban them. The genetically modified athlete is not somebody who can straightforwardly be labelled as a ‘cheat’ and this is critical to realise when beginning to discuss the ethical implications of this technology. After all, genetically modified athletes might not have altered themselves at all, but might have been brought about by the knowledge provided by genetics. Alternatively, if we are discussing whether a genetically modified athlete should be allowed to compete or not, it is important to recognise that the discussion might involve the offspring of genetically modified humans. As such, we would only indirectly consider such persons to be genetically modified and the extent to which they could be labelled cheats becomes far more complex, even if they have a competitive advantage in sport.

These concerns are consistent with a further criticism of anti-doping that, predominantly, it continues to penalise the athlete in the ‘culture of doping’ as described by Lord Charles Dubin in his post-Ben Johnson report (Dubin 1990). Dubin’s conclusions were significant for identifying that it is not just the athlete who creates the doping culture of sport. Rather, it is a range of people and professions that make it possible. Houlihan (1999; 2004) has written extensively on the weaknesses of solely targeting and punishing athletes, stressing the importance of education and sanctions for people within the athlete’s entourage, including team physicians.

Yet, athletes remain the target for criticism when doping cases arises. One of the most recent examples of this was tennis player Greg Rusedski’s positive test for nandrolone, which illustrates the inadequacies of the ‘antiathlete’ approach to doping. While there was no question about whether the results were reliable, it transpired that the consumption of the substance arose from a nutritional supplement, which was distributed by the Association of Tennis Professionals. Rusedski could not be held responsible for having tested positive. The Rusedski case provided unequivocal evidence that the very standards required of athletes by sports authorities to ensure they do not consume prohibited substances are not met by the institutions themselves who set them. As such, the moral high ground so often taken against the ‘guilty’ athlete overlooks the more detailed and complex circumstances within which positive tests arise and the conceptual difficulties with establishing what constitutes an ethically permissible method of performance enhancement in sport.