Health and Wellness

UN says forcing intersex athletes into medical interventions violates human rights

Caster Semenya
Semenya Caster runs the women's 800m in the 2016 Olympics Games.Photo: Shutterstock

A new report from the United Nation’s Human Rights Council has told countries to oppose athletic policies that pressure intersex athletes into undergoing “unnecessary” medical interventions such as drugs and surgeries meant to reduce hormone levels into a range matching competitors of a certain gender.

The report says that athletic governing bodies should “review, revise, and revoke eligibility rules and regulations that have negative effects on athletes’ rights, including those addressing athletes with intersex variations.”

Related: The NCAA might move college sports out of Idaho because of its law banning trans athletes

The U.N. Human Rights Council began researching its report last March after the South Africa U.N. delegation entered a resolution on behalf of Caster Semenya. Semenya, 29, is a cisgender lesbian runner from South Africa and an Olympic gold medalist who has spent most of her pro-sports career fighting to compete as a woman despite her high testosterone level.

Semenya lost her a case against the Court of Arbitration for Sport in May 2019 after it upheld the International Association of Athletics Federations’ new testosterone limit for female athletes. The testosterone limit would require Semenya and other athletes like her to take drugs or undergo a gonadectomy, a surgical removal of her ovaries, in order to lower their testosterone levels to a range matching other female athletes.

Semenya had taken such drugs from 2010 to 2015 in order to compete internationally, but she has refused to do so again. Though she lost her case, she appealed the court’s decision to the Swiss Federal Tribunal and is awaiting its decision. In the meantime, she is pursuing a career in soccer.

“I thank the U.N. High Commissioner for highlighting the discrimination and harm faced by women and girls in sport,” Semenya said in response to the report. “For too long, people controlling sport have looked the other way, ignored our rights. I want to assure them – we will not be silenced and we will not disappear.”

Intersex children can be born with a variety of chromosomal, gonadal, hormonal, or genital features that cause their bodies to physically manifest some combination of stereotypically male or female biological features. Sometimes these express themselves in one’s physical appearance or through internal differences, like elevated hormone levels.

In response to the U.N. report, World Athletics, the international governing body for the running, walking and track sports said,  ‘[Requiring some competitors to undergo drug treatment and surgery] is necessary to ensure the female category in sport is a protected category. [This] requires rules and regulations to protect it, otherwise we risk losing the next generation of female athletes, since they will see no path to success in female sport.”

‘This was the reasoning of the Court of Arbitration for Sport when it upheld our female eligibility regulations last year,” the organization continued. “The Court of Arbitration for Sport found the regulations to be ‘a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of attaining a legitimate objective’ of ensuring fair competition in female athletics.”


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