Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Say yes to steroids?

Andrew Sullivan argues for the use of steroids in sports. He writes:

We have drugs for hard-ons; and we have elaborate plastic surgery for anyone feeling ugly or fat. We have fat-burning pills and hair-growing treatments. We have pills to send us to sleep; we have medical contraptions to give us better sleep (yay!); we have addictive drugs, like caffeine, to wake us up and keep us awake. The line between pharmaceuticals that actually cure illness and those that enhance our quality of life, or extend it to lengths once thought inimaginable, is getting blurrier all the time…

… [T]he brouhaha over steroids in sports strikes me as somewhat off-key. Our cultural norm is that drugs that do not harm you are perfectly legit in increasing your enjoyment of life, or enhancing your ability to perform certain tasks. Why, then, are steroids so illegitimate in sports?

The issue, of course, is broader than that of steroids, and broader than that of sports. The kind of doping that sportspeople are most likely to do in the years to come is what is beginning to be known as gene doping, and that is almost impossible to catch. It is also no different, in essence, from the different kinds of gene therapy that are now available.

When we talk of genetic enhancement, of course, we enter a domain of furious argument, of moral questions about whether or not we should try to improve upon biology, and to undermine, in the words of Leon Kass, “the idea of humanness and of our human life and the meaning of our embodiment and our relation to ancestors and descendants”. (Kass was speaking in the context of in vitro fertilisation, but it might well have been about stem cell research, or even gene doping.)

I had blogged on just this subject a few weeks ago on my cricket blog, where I’d written:

The opposition to genetic engineering and stem-cell research today is identical in nature to the opposition to birth control and in virto fertilisation, and as misguided. If we went by the logic behind it – that we should accept our biological destiny and not try to control it – then we'd be against antibiotics and vaccination and angioplasty and vitamin pills as well. The average lifespan of humans has increased, in the US, from around 45 to around 78 in the 100 years of the 20th century, and this is all because of one reason – that, unique among species, to a gradually increasing extent, we have the ability to transcend biology.

Is it not absurd, then, to transcend biology in every other sphere but sport, which is meant to showcase the fittest humans? I had written:

Is it okay for someone who has muscular dystrophy to seek treatment through gene therapy? Clearly, yes. Is it okay, then, for someone to use the same therapy for cosmetic purposes? Well, if you can get a boobjob or a facelift, surely it is. In that case, is it wrong for the same therapy to be used for sporting purposes? If we can strive to improve our bodies for any other purpose, why not to win medals or excel in sport? And why should sportsmen not have access to the same tools that non-sportsmen do?

On the whole, I agree with Sullivan that there is little we can do to regulate the use of drugs in sports – as he says, “the steroid technology almost always out-strips the testing technology”. But the difference in future will be that doping in sport will be far more advanced than steroid use, and the lines between genetic “doping” for sport and genetic enhancement for health and lifestyle reasons will be harder to determine.

We begin life, and sport, with a set of imponderables – the abilities that we are born with. Surely we all deserve an equal opportunity to go beyond.

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