The kindest cut?

It goes without saying that castrating sex offenders in order to control their behaviour is highly controversial. Likewise, describing something that damages a person physically as ‘treatment’ is problematic for many. That’s partly because of the image, reinforced even by publications as prominent as Time, that castration involves excising a man’s testicles with the single swipe of a scalpel.

Of course, there are those who would welcome the prospect of sex offenders being physically altered and would see this as just, given the harms that they have inflicted upon others (see the comments made about chemical castration article in the Daily Mail ).

In addition to concerns about the nature of the intervention there are also good reasons for worrying about the fact that in some European countries imprisoned sex offenders might choose to be castrated because it increases the chance of them being released earlier. Given that, it is not surprising that this practise has been scrutinised by the Council of Europe. Their view is that this ‘treatment’ is degrading and should be abolished. While there are reasons for having grave reservations about this practise, are they adequate for saying that this is something that should never occur and are these the reasons that the Council of Europe gives for abolishing this practice? If someone has a choice between remaining in prison for a long period of time or being castrated and having a chance at an earlier release could they choose castration voluntarily? The Council of Europe seem to assume that they could not and that is far from obviously true.

For someone whose life history is one that has been constructed around the infliction of harm upon other human beings, could the reduction of the passions that contributed to this harm benefit that person and help to recalibrate a life that has gone badly awry? While castration seems like an extraordinary measure for working toward that end, perhaps it is something that should be available in some cases.

Guest post by:
Professor John McMillan
University of Otago,
Bioethics Centre

For a fuller discussion see his online first paper.

  • MJK

    Physical castration is one means to attempt to change the chemicals and hormones that generate the sexual urge in a human being who is so psychologically disordered that they are incapable of considering the pain and suffering inflicted onto a vulnerable and often defenceless child or young person. Or indeed, as you acknowledge, that contributes to the enjoyment associated with defilement. I know in the circumstances that I had to live through, the individual derived additional considerable pleasures from causing me physical and mental anguish and tremendous levels of fear. Those tendencies would not have been curbed through mere castration. He was compulsive and like many paedophiles, he left a trail of victims. When you are dealing with a human being who is utterly depraved, unable to control their urges themselves, or who is unwilling to even try, then society has an obligation to positively act to protect the rights of future victims by detaining the individual indefinitely or to request a physical change which will render them incapable of imposing further harms. What are the alternative options available? Lobotomies? Remove part of the brain rather than the testes? Or, perhaps remove the offenders fingers so they have no capacity to touch a child? Maybe that should occur as well as castration? I say this because as you say, it’s the psychological, mental pleasure that some offenders take in inflicting their crimes on the young and vulnerable, not just the immediate sex act. How do you police this? How do you measure ‘degrading’ treatment which aims to prevent the degradation resulting from sexual perversion and servitude associated with sexual slavery? If individuals are opting to castrate in order to qualify for freedom, to qualify for parole or consideration for release from prison then they are at least a minority population who recognise that the behaviour management strategies used to control their compulsions is not going to be achieved unless something radical occurs to aid this prevention. They are unable to achieve control of this their behaviour themselves. Given the significant production and trade in child pornography the mental aspect factors, the pleasure derived not only from physical satisfaction, but the other elements of domination, oppression, coercion and the corruption of innocence and vulnerability which lures individuals into sexual offending just as much as chemicals and hormones. In fact, maybe the prisons should be offering aversion therapies as well as castration…. or is that just vengeful thinking on my part? What needs to be recognised is that the percentage of suicides where individuals have a past history of sexual abuse demonstrates that most people who are victims find it very difficult to remove themselves from fracture this causes to their integrity and sense of self identity. The Council of Europe must balance the significant and sometimes irreversible harms experienced in the deep ocean of victims against the rights of a small pool of offenders.