The idea of 'chemically castrating' male sex offenders is confronting. The word castration evokes images of scalpels and eunuchs. But the Queensland Government’s proposal to castrate sex offenders in exchange for shorter jail terms involves a far less vulgar reality. Chemical castration is non-surgical and non-permanent. It will be voluntary, and simply involves a regular course of hormone tablets. So the debate shifts from mutilating convicted paedophiles’ crown jewels to whether state power should extend to interfering with a criminal’s biology so that they can be released from jail.
Support for chemical castration draws on the rights of convicted sex criminals. Their crimes may be repulsive but they have rights, and rightfully so. Chemical castration, undertaken voluntarily, is a step towards rehabilitation. In the Queensland Government proposal, it could humanise socially outcast offenders, and help them find a place in the community without endangering it. In doing so, the treatment could frame jail sentences as an opportunity for rehabilitation, rather than just punishment.
In June, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh presented a review of the management of high risk sex offenders. The chemical castration of sex offenders was recommended in some circumstances, which Bligh defended by stressing the treatment would be voluntary and used under the supervision of a psychiatrist in addition to intensive therapy. The treatment will be less expensive for taxpayers than the current use of tracking devices to monitor parole. So yes, we have a government proposal that makes economic, moralistic and scientific sense.
Whether chemical castration makes scientific sense is a necessary discussion in any debate about the treatment. It is untried in Australia with sex offenders, but is used to treat prostrate cancer. A course of drugs are prescribed to restrict hormones that stimulate testicles to produce testosterone. It works in sex offenders because their high levels of testosterone correspond with their increased tendency to be sexually violent or aggressive.
Libido-reducing treatments have been used in parts of the United States with mixed results. American advocates of the treatment claim it reduces the likelihood of re-offending to two per cent, compared to 75 per cent without medication. Not all American doctors have embraced the treatment. They’ve raised concerns about liability and being involved in the ‘punishment of an offender’.
The idea isn’t entirely new to Australia. In November 2004, the then Opposition spokesman on justice, Andrew Humpherson, called on the NSW Parliament to consider voluntary chemical castration of sex offenders. The Minister for Justice John Hatzistergos canned the idea saying, ‘the problem with sex offenders is mental, not just physical. With pedophilia in particular, there's other ways you can molest children.’
Hatzistergos was right, to an extent. Paedophilia is a psychological condition, and therefore needs to be treated as such. Chemical castration is the medication of an extreme mental illness. Queensland’s Opposition Leader, Lawrence Springborg, has labelled the treatment as a get-out-of-jail-free-card. But state cabinet is not prescribing it freely. Corrective Services Minister, Judy Spence, says it will be used only ‘if it’s recommended by a psychiatrist as part of an overall treatment program.’
My initial reaction to the idea of chemical castration was similar to the public fallout over Stanley Kubrick’s 1970s film, A Clockwork Orange, inspired by Anthony Burgess’ novel of the same name. In the film, the main character Alex is jailed for a violent murder. In jail, he undergoes an experimental form of aversion therapy—The Ludovico Technique. The treatment causes Alex to become nauseous when he thinks about violence or sex. He is ‘rehabilitated’ because he cannot re-offend. But in psychological terms, his intentions have not changed.
The determination of sex offenders to reoffend is worrying. This is why releasing sex offenders into the community will always be met with resistance. The Movement Against Kindred Offenders (MAKO), an Australian not-for-profit organisation that campaigns for community protection against sex criminals, reports that 65-70 per cent of victims of sex crimes are children. What’s worse, it claims that the average paedophile in Australia molests 45-135 children. MAKO calls for indefinite jail sentences. No mercy. No rehabilitation.
In light of this community resistance, I commend the boldness of the Queensland Government. They’re tackling an emotive issue methodically, and in doing so attempting to liberate sex offenders from a mental illness. Paedophiles are whole persons with disordered minds, and are entitled to voluntary treatment. Jail has a place when a crime calls for punishment, but without serious reformation paedophilia is a relentless behaviour. With effective treatment, this disease needn’t be suffered for life.
How do I know this?
2008, ‘Doctor calls for serious sex offender support’, 3 July, www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/07/02/2292757.htm
Amlin, K 2008 ‘Chemical Castration: The benefits and disadvantages intrinsic to injecting male paedophiliacs with Depo-Provera’, Serendip
, 9 January, http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/1778
Berry, P 2008, ‘Castration is a get-out-of-jail-free card’, The Australian
, 19 July, www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23926118-12377,00.html
Besharov, D 1992, ‘Sex offenders: is castration an acceptable punishment?’ ABA Journal
, July 1992
Burgess, S 1962, A Clockwork Orange
, Heinemann, London (1982)
Chilcott, T 2008, ‘Paedophile Geoffery Robert Dobbs could seek castration’, News.com,
26 June, www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,23922350-1248,00.html
Davies, A 2004, ‘Chemical castration trial rejected as ridiculous’, 25 November, www.smh.com.au/news/National/Chemical-castration-trial-rejected-as-ridiculous/2004/11/24/1101219620131.html?from=storylhs
Movement Against Kindred Offenders, www.mako.org.au
Russell, S 1997, ‘Castration of repeat sexual offenders: An international Comparative Analysis’ The John Marshall Law Review
The Queensland Government 2008, ‘Managing sex offenders in the community’, 24 June, www.correctiveservices.qld.gov.au/Publications/
Wardill, S 2008, ‘Sex offenders offered chemical castrastion’, News.com
, 24 June, www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,23914150-2,00.html
Wardill, S 2008, ‘Sex offenders who volunteer for chemical castration may be able to avoid indefinite sentences under changes announced by the Queensland Government’, 24 June, www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23914138-5006786,00.html