Is “Gene Doping” Wrong?

In recent years, the International Olympic Committee and other sports organizations have worried about the possible misuse of gene-transfer technology. But the sports world seems intent on exploiting this technology in pursuit of gold medals and championships, and genetic testing may be the wave of the future.

Two Australian Football League teams have hinted that they are looking into tests that would indicate an athlete’s likely height, stamina, speed, and strength. Indeed, for some, “gene doping” now represents the Holy Grail of performance enhancement, while for others it means the end of sports as we know it.

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The prospect of a future of genetically modified athletes incites alarm throughout the sports world, accompanied by portrayals of such athletes as inhuman or some form of mutant. This is a misrepresentation of how gene transfer would alter humans, both therapeutically and non-therapeutically, should it ever be legalized. But the fear that rogue scientists will take advantage of athletes – or that athletes will seek to enroll in gene-transfer experiments in an attempt to receive some undetectable performance benefit – is very real.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) prohibited gene doping in 2003, but some scientists predict that its misuse in sport is likely to appear at the Beijing 2008 Olympics. It is in this context that the debate about gene doping erupted during the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Unfortunately, because the discussion has so far been dominated by moral panic over the state of sports, many ethical considerations and important questions have been excluded.

Policies concerning gene doping should not rely solely on the interests and infrastructures of sports organizations. In particular, the monitoring committees on genetic technology that nations develop must be taken on board by the world of sport. A simple model based on prohibition and testing for gene modification will not be enough, assuming that detection is possible at all.

Moreover, ethics committees must be made aware of the special circumstances of sports, which limit the effectiveness of broader social policies on genetic modification. Again, regulation ought not to rely on one single global authority. As has been made clear from the ethical debates on stem-cell research, a global policy cannot easily be adopted or enforced, nor should it be.

Above all, it is not acceptable for the world of sport to impose a moral view about the role of enhancement technology on nations that wish to participate in the Olympics, without implementing an extensive and ongoing consultative process to accompany its policy decision. This cannot involve the creation of working groups that merely pay lip service to ethical debate, but must enable non-sports organizations to develop their own policy framework for the regulation of ’gene doping’ and, more broadly, the use of genetic information.

Policies governing gene transfer in sports must, therefore, be recognized as subservient to broader bio-ethical and bio-legal interests that recognize the changing role of genetics in society. The rhetoric surrounding “gene doping” relies heavily on its moral status as a form of cheating. Yet, this status relies on existing anti-doping rules. If we don’t ban gene transfer in the first place, then on one level, it is not cheating.

In any case, to describe genetically modified athletes as mutants or inhuman is morally suspect, for it invokes the same kind of prejudice that we deplore in relation to other biological characteristics, particularly race, gender, and disability. After all, many, if not most, top athletes are “naturally” genetically gifted. To refer to these people as mutants would surely invite widespread criticism.

Those who fear that gene doping heralds the “end of sports” should instead recognize this moment as an opportunity to ask critical and difficult questions about the effectiveness and validity of anti-doping tests. Does society really care about performance enhancement in sport?

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That may sound like a radical question. But advancement in ethical inquiry relies on the conflict of beliefs and values. For many years, commentators have expressed concerns about the culture of doping in elite sport. Yet, the culture of anti-doping is equally alarming, because it embodies a dogmatic commitment that limits the capacity for critical debate over what really matters in sport.

If anti-doping authorities truly care about sports, then they have a responsibility to re-examine the basic values that underpin their work. They should begin by imagining what would happen if the child of a genetically modified human wanted to become an elite athlete. At the very least, they might then be less prone to imposing the narrow moral position of the sports world on the parent.