Few crimes prompt more revulsion and outrage than sexual assault, especially when the victims are children. Yet the problem of how to treat sex offenders remains a matter of ethical, legal and medical dispute.
Recently it was reported that a proposal being studied in Los Angeles on effective ways to deal with sex offenders includes castration among the possible options. Even if castration does not violate the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment,” the question of whether it is an ethically permissible remedy persists.
Those who favor castration as an appropriate punishment for rapists and child molesters appeal to two different arguments. Some regard it as a punishment that “fits the crime.” This position views punishment as a form of retribution, a means of giving criminals their “just deserts.”
Retributive theories have been around for centuries, such as the biblical notion of “an eye for an eye.” Yet even if this justification for punishment is generally sound, the moral acceptability of a particular form of retribution, such as castration, may be open to question.
The other justification for punishment is its deterrent value. When a convicted offender is sent to prison, removal from society acts as a specific deterrent because that individual, while safely locked away, is unable to commit further acts of violence. There is no controversy about whether specific deterrence is effective.
The effectiveness of any form of punishment as a general deterrent is more controversial. Debate surrounds the question of whether and to what extent punishment administered to those found guilty succeeds in deterring others. Can the punishment of sex offenders by castration be justified by an appeal to either specific or general deterrence? The answer depends on factual evidence as well as a choice of moral principles.
The easier case would seem to be that of specific deterrence. Does surgical castration, technically known as bilateral orchiectomy--the removal of the testicles to decrease production of the male sex hormone testosterone--successfully eliminate a man’s ability or urge to commit acts of sexual violence? Though it may render the man impotent--unable to have an erection --it has not been proved sufficient to remove the violent urges that often motivate mentally disordered sex offenders.
Sexual aggression has many forms, only one of which is forced intercourse. Indeed, studies of sex offenders have concluded that rape should be viewed more as an act of aggression or hostility than as an expression of uncontrolled sexual desire. This would suggest that castration would not eliminate the hostile urges of rapists. The surgical procedure might render them impotent but still dangerous men who would channel their hostility into other modes of violence.
The use of castration as a general deterrent is even more problematic. The naive assumption that laws mandating harsh punishment will change the “urges” of hardened criminals or repeat offenders is open to challenge by centuries of evidence to the contrary. Even more dubious is the notion that the threat of castration would be effective in deterring mentally disordered sex offenders. People whose criminal behavior is a product of a mental disorder are not influenced by the prospect of punishment. Whether their mental disorder is an inability to control their impulses or to distinguish “right from wrong,” they are unlikely to refrain from acts of sexual aggression by rationally deliberating the consequences of getting caught.
But suppose castration is an effective deterrent. Do ethical problems remain? One objection is that castration is a drastic means to achieve the desired end. The dignified treatment of persons, including criminals, demands less drastic measures when they are available. Lengthy imprisonment remains an effective deterrent against repeat offenses by those who are apprehended.
Another less drastic measure is “chemical castration.” Experimental treatment programs using anti-androgens, chemicals that counteract male hormones, have been studied, and other research programs using forms of behavior modification are in progress. Unlike surgical castration, the use of chemicals is a reversible process and therefore a less drastic measure. But, since the efficacy of chemical castration is not proved, its value as a deterrent remains in doubt.
Someone is bound to raise the question of the financial costs to society of imprisoning sex offenders for lengthy periods, perhaps a lifetime. But that objection does not address the ethics of castration as a form of punishment. There are costs to society other than monetary ones. Civilized societies have made moral progress over the centuries in improving their treatment of criminals, mental patients and other deviant persons. To embark on castration of sex offenders as we approach the 21st Century would be to turn back the clock of human dignity.