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France Tests "Chemical Castration"

John Laurenson (jp)January 8, 2005

In France, doctors recently began giving chemical treatment to 48 repeat sex offenders to see if this will stop them attacking again. But not everyone is convinced it's the best way forward.

The treatment is expected to keep offenders from repeating their crimeImage: dpa

All the men undergoing the treatment are volunteers who served prison terms for sex crimes. The government hopes that medical treatment will help stem a sharp increase in the number of sex crimes, particularly child rape.

The number of people sent to prison in France for sexual offenses has multiplied dramatically over the past 20 years. In 2004, there were 8,200 sex offenders in prison -- or 22 percent of the jail population -- compared to 1,100 or five percent in 1980. Almost a quarter of male detainees in French jails are sex offenders, and nearly three quarters of them have raped children.

French Justice Minister Dominic Perben recently told French radio that experimenting with chemical treatment to curb sex crime had never been tried in France before, but if it worked, it could be something sex offenders are forced to undergo in the future, like psychological treatment.

According to the minister, injections of the prostate cancer drug leuproreline and the breast cancer tablet cyproterone dampen the sex drive and inhibit erections. But the effect wears off when the treatment stops -- so this is not "chemical castration" but rather, to use the minister's phrase, "a chemical straightjacket."

"In prison I felt free"

Madelaine Perret is vice-president of the Paris section of the prisoner help organization FARAPEJ. She's met a number of sex offenders during her 15 years as a prison visitor and isn't surprised that some might volunteer for treatment.

"One prisoner I used to visit told me, 'You can't imagine the strength of the impulse some of us feel to get close to little boys and commit acts that are completely forbidden,'" she said. "He said he was glad to have been arrested, and happy to be in prison. Because there were no young boys, there was no temptation and so it was in prison that he felt free."

Gewalt gegen Kinder
Sexual abuse scars children for lifeImage: dpa Zentralbild

Perret stressed that many of the offenders feel helpless.

"He was down for a long sentence but was frightened about offending again when he was finally released," she said. "He said, 'I want treatment! I want them to put a stop to these impulses that push me, in spite of myself, to commit what I know are crimes!'"

Diminished responsibility?

Some psychologists worry that the availability of chemical treatment might make offenders feel less responsible for their behavior -- after all, if it's possible to take drugs to stop sexually assaulting children, many might feel the crime is therefore less morally reprehensible and more the result of a medical condition.

Psychologist and Catholic prison chaplain Isabelle Le Bourgeois has another objection. She says more emphasis should be placed on trying to understand and treat the psychological disorder behind pedophile crime.

"Until, say, 20 years ago, it was almost rather beautiful to 'love' children [as people put it]," she pointed out. "It only became an offense a very short time ago. Victims dared speak about the damage it caused them and people woke up to how serious it was."

According to Le Bourgeois, treating sex offenders is only just beginning to prove effective.

"Because it's so recent, there hasn't been proper psychological analysis of the mechanisms at work," she said. "We'll only really start to make progress against sex crime when we find out what's going on in the heads of different categories of sex offender."

The past few months have seen a series of pedophile rape trials in France. These crimes have outraged public opinion and left it eager for action. But while chemicals might succeed in stopping pedophiles re-offending, nothing is being done to reform the pedophile imprisoned in his own mind.