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Compulsory chemical castration for sex offenders

A month ago, the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, called for the introduction of forced chemical castration for sex offenders. The call followed a particularly nasty case of incest and paedophilia in the country: a 45 year old man was found to have sexually abused his 21-year-old daughter over a period of six years, and to have fathered two children by her. A poll showed that 84% of the Polish population supported the Prime Minister’s proposal, however many commentators condemned it as an affront to human rights. In response, the Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, claimed that the sex offenders he has in mind cannot be described as human beings, and therefore have no human rights (see here). Nevertheless, high level opposition has forced the government to replace the proposal with a plan for voluntary chemical castration, which is already allowed in Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, and some US states. 

It is interesting to compare the claims that have been made for and against Mr Tusk’s proposal with those that we might expect to surround alternative proposals for reducing rates of re-offending among sex offenders. Suppose the Prime Minister had instead suggested the introduction of a compulsory education programme for sex offenders in which they would be forced to confront the devastating effects that their actions can have on their victims. It is difficult to imagine such a proposal being greeted with the claim that it breaches human rights. And it is also hard to imagine the proponents of such a programme resorting to the claim that sex offenders aren’t human. Instead, the debate would probably focus on weighing the costs and benefits of the proposed programme.

Can these differing responses be justified? Is there any good reason to think that compulsory chemical castration is a matter of human rights, while compulsory re-education is not?

One argument might be that chemical castration involves a physical threat to the human body (in the form of an injection) whereas forced education does not. However, it seems unlikely that the act of forced injection is really what opponents of chemical castration are opposed to. Would a compulsory vaccination programme for inmates call forth such loud protests? And would objections to chemical castration dissolve if the drugs could be administered non-invasively (say, by inhalation)? I suspect not. Similar thoughts apply to concerns about the side effects of chemical castration, which may, depending on the drug used, include lethargy, depression, a degree of feminisation, or a range of other physical symptoms. It seems doubtful whether concerns about chemical castration would evaporate if it could be shown to have no more side effects than re-education programmes.

Another view would hold that differing responses to pharmacological and educational strategies are justified by the fact that the former impinge on individual freedom more seriously than the latter. Sex offenders would, perhaps, be free to resist the messages of their lessons in a way that the chemically castrated could not resist the behavioural effects of castration. It seems questionable whether this is true, particularly if the education programme in question were highly emotional in content. But even if we grant that pharmacological interventions do limit freedom more seriously than education, it is not at all clear that this could justify the strong reaction that proposals for chemical castration evoke. After all, we already massively constrain the freedom of sex offenders by imprisoning them. Removing the freedom of sex offenders to sexually offend is recognised as an effective and ethically acceptable way of preventing re-offending.

Finally, it might be claimed that, unlike compulsory re-education programmes, chemical castration fails to get to the root of the problem of sexual abuse, which is not, it might be claimed, an excessive libido, but is instead a disrespect for others. Suppose that disrespect is indeed the problem. It may follow that it would be preferable to treat sex offenders by teaching them to respect others than by diminishing their libido, if only because this will, in the long run, be more effective at reducing re-offending. But suppose that all plausible educations have been tried and have failed. Or suppose that in a particular case, excessive libido does seem to be at least part of the problem. In these cases, it may be that diminishing excessive libido is as close as the root to the problem as we can get.

Perhaps some other argument can be given to justify the strong reactions that proposals of chemical castration evoke. But several of the obvious candidates seem flawed, suggesting that it at least an open question whether these reactions can be given any rational basis.


Poland set to impose chemical castration after outrage over incest case‘, The Times, 26 September 2008.

Poland to chemically castrate paedophiles‘, BioEdge, 17 October 2008.

C. Hebel, ‘EU Politicians Angered By Polish Chemical Castration Plan‘, Spiegel Online, 25 September 2008.

E. Siedlecka, ‘Paedophile Castration Only on Request‘, Gazeta, 3 October 2008.

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5 Comment on this post

  1. I would think the intuitive difference is that compulsory castration violates one’s right to bodily integrity. “Re-education” could involve similar violations (of psychological integrity) if it amounted to brainwashing rather than genuine learning — and I imagine people would have similar concerns about that sort of case.

  2. Thanks, Richard. I’m not sure about this. Both forced chemical castration and forced re-education violate bodily and psychological integrity in the sense that they cause biochemical, neural and psychological changes to the ‘recipient’ without that recipient’s consent. There is also a further more straightforward way in which forced chemical castration violates bodily integrity: the means to administering the drug involves an invasive medical procedure (an injection). But as I argued in the post, it doesn’t seem that it’s the means of administration that people are objecting too. The objections would be made even if the drug could be administered non-invasively. In such a case, I’m not clear how chemical castration would violate bodily integrity in any way that forced education wouldn’t also do so.

  3. I think that this is an excellant solution ( chemical castration ), as I work with many women that has suffered through chidhood by being sexally abused, and now take drugs also self harm to block out the dreadful memory’s of their childhood.
    The men responsible cannot be cured they still find it a thrill to remember what they did for their own satifaction.
    To listen to the women / young girls is so sad, they cannot be cured.Educating these men is not a solution it has been tryed and tested, but they still carry on. So those of you that think that the idea of ‘chemical casteration is wrong should sit with a girl who has gone through so much suffering whislt sutering their skin….more tear drops and blood drops from them.

  4. Why stop at sex offenders?

    Chemical castration could prevent a lot of prison rape.

    It’s not like it’s irreversible. If someone turns out to be innocent you simply let them go and they don’t need to take any more chemicals and they go back to normal.

  5. Castration is wrong due to the real rates of sex offenders re-offending.

    The re-offense rate for sex offenders are much lower than people realize. Even the ones that do re-offended its for not registering on time or on a non-sex related offense like a DUI. It’s too easy to re-offend(under current law), going to close to a high school while driving to work or while on vacation failing to register while away for two weeks, going a couple days past yearly registration date. Are these real harmful sexual offenses? Yet these situations are considered when making up these rates. Believe me after the embarrassment, jail time, probation, required therapy and registering all the time. The sex offender rarely re-offends sexually, but the media would have you believe they do. Stranger danger? BS!! Most new sex offenses are from first time offenders not re-offenders. So, educate little Johnny prior to him going out with his GF! This is such sad BS, but true. Call it the new McCarthyism or the new Salem witch hunts! As this snow ball goes down the hill of injustice soon we all will know someone hit by it. It might be you next!

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