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  • Reverend James Squire

Transgender Athletes

One can see the controversy quickly after reading the article regarding Lia Thomas, a transgender woman, swimming for Penn. The title of article by Ellie Rushing on February 5, 2022 in the Inquirer is, “16 Penn Swimmers Feel Thomas Should Not Compete.” The heart of the article is the following:

“We fully support Lia Thomas in her decision to affirm her gender identity, and to transition from a man to a woman. Lia has every right to live her live authentically.

However, we also recognize that when it comes to sports competition, that the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity. Biologically, Lia holds an unfair advantage over competition in the women’s category, as evidenced by her rankings that have bounced from No. 462 as a male to No. 1 as a female. If she were to be eligible to compete against us, she could now break Penn, Ivy, and NCAA Women’s Swimming records; feats she could never done as a male athlete.”

An ethical discussion of this controversy from a bioethics perspective falls in the area of reasonable person standard, enhancement, and Locke’s theory of property.

There are cases of enhancement that we can reference. We will avoid steroid and drug use as they are illegal. The one case of enhancement that a good many people have heard about is Tommy John Surgery for baseball pitchers. The number of high school athletes who are pitchers having this surgery has increased over the last decade. The number of athletes between the ages of 15-19 has increased by 50% since it was first done in 1974. The surgery entails operating on the ulnar collateral ligament to execute a throwing motion. Sometimes it is needed, but it is also come under scrutiny when athletes had it done to enhance performance. The problem with the surgery is that it can assist the throwing motion, but can also cause lasting damage.

There are legal forms of enhancement as well. Do you think that the athletes in the Olympics train in Colorado Springs because it is a beautiful area? They train there because it thickens the blood delivering more oxygen to the body. I know this from personal experience. My family and I were staying in Snowmass, Colorado when I came across an article in their local newspaper. Just as you are functioning at a higher altitude in Colorado Springs, you are doing the same in Snowmass. The article documented how people living in Snowmass had thicker blood than others at a lower altitude transporting a higher level of oxygen.

I would obviously be running when I was there which was difficult at first, but then when I was acclimated, the running became “normal” for me. When I came home to the east coast, I was like kid lightening for about a week when I then readjusted to running at sea level. The athletes train longer at Colorado Springs and take that enhanced quality with them for an undetermined length of time. Everyone complains about the Kenyans always winning marathons. The climate and conditions in Kenya optimize their natural ability.

The issue here is technically everyone could have access to these natural training areas. Not everyone chooses to become transgender. There is no equal access. Therefore, it is unethical for transgender athletes to compete in sports. They, however, should be permitted to play in games for the social and the character-building nature of sports if winning and losing doesn’t depend on the biology of the person.

A strong argument against Lia Thomas competing in the above-mentioned competitions is the reasonable person standard. I believe that if I gathered a reasonable unbiased group together and said that “she went from being No. 462 in the male rankings to the No. 1 in the female rankings”, this would cause us to suspend belief that she could improve that much in the period of time since her transition and dealing with the hiatus brought on by Covid.

John Locke had two issues that were sacred in his theory. One was the primacy of property and social contracts. He said that you had a “right to own the property with which you mixed your labor. But your property stops when it infringes on those around you.” In this case the property (her body) of the transgender swimmer seems to be interfering with the property of her neighbor who have put forth great effort as well.

Last, parents of transgender youth worry about their children. Their primary concern is that they be treated equally as others. I know they want equal rights for their children, but their chief concern is their physical and emotional safety like every other parent. In fact, this is a belief of all parents. The last thing that a transgender person wants is to be seen as is participating in an unfair way regarding sports. Her performance has divided her teammates. Our inclusion of them safely in our society should be a top priority. No transgender youth would go through the transition process to achieve great prowess and success in a sport. That success is a byproduct. All of us have biological issues that rule us in or out of athletic competitions.

After I had a transgender person speak in chapel at EA about the social justice issues that she faced as an award-winning attorney in Colorado, I asked her what I should look for as the key issue of where the ethical discussion was going to go in terms of transgender rights. She responded by saying, “It’s going to be the rest rooms!” She could just as easily have said, “It’s going to be about the biology of a transgender person.” In essence the controversy of transgender athletes competing is the ethical debate between authenticity and biology.

By the way when the transgender speaker described above finished her address, she received a standing ovation from those gathered who filled the chapel.

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