In my last post I talked about the ethics of court-ordered administration of medication as a means to make a criminal offender competent for trial or punishment. This post will focus on court-ordered chemical castration as punishment.
At least eight states in the U.S., and quite a few European nations (including the UK, Denmark, Portugal, Poland, and the Czech Republic), have chemical castration programs. In Iowa, California, and Florida sex offenders may be subject to mandatory chemical castration. In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed a law in 2008 allowing judges to sentence anyone convicted of rape to chemical castration.
Castration effects are administered to offenders via weekly injections of Depro-Provera, an analogue of the female hormone progesterone. (See this Fox News piece supporting the use of Depro-Provera on sex offenders.) The drug reduces the normal levels of testosterone in males by roughly fifty percent - a level equal to that found in pre-pubescent boy. The drug reduces sex drive significantly, and often diminishes ejaculation fluid to zero, eliminating the capacity for an erection.
Given the traditional aims of punishment, it is difficult to articulate a defense of this practice. Some advocating chemical castration argue for it on retributive grounds: an offender who sexually assaulted a child deserves to have any future sexual experiences taken away from him. But the U.S. system of punishment deliberately steers clear of this sort of antiquated "eye for an eye" punishment: we do not cut off the hands of a thief so he can not steal again. And even if we felt this sort of retributive sentiment was legitimate in the case of sexual offenders, many sexual assaults are crimes of violence, not sex, so the appropriate response might be to exact a level of violence equal to that suffered by the victim, not weekly drug injections and a diminished sex drive.
Some who support chemical castration do so on the grounds of deterrence, or rehabilitation. An offender whose sex drive is diminished and cannot sustain an erection is less likely to commit another sexual offense, and may be considered "reformed." But this sort of defense of the practice starts us down the slippery-ist of slopes. The same argument could be used to defend the leisoning of a repeat violent offender's amygdala to inhibit aggression and violence; or permanent alteration of an addict's brain such that drugs or alcohol make the offender sick.
I've been thinking about chemical castration from the perspective of virtue ethics. Contemporary virtue theorists argue that character development is crucial to moral personhood. Character traits are dispositions to act in a certain way in certain situations, and these dispostions are in constant development or decline, depending on the choices that one makes (see Annas 2011; Webber 2006). Many criminal offenders could be described as having vicious (as opposed to virtuous) character traits which dispose them to violence or victimization of others in certain circumstances. Certain rehabilitative programs, such as anger management, therapy for drug addiction, and educational programs, aim to help an offender develop character traits that would diminish the possibility of harmful action. These programs assist offenders in making more rational, and thus better, choices, by helping them better manage things that might get in the way of being virtuous (such as strong emotions like anger, cravings for a drug, or bad circumstances like joblessness).
Chemical castration isn't this type of rehabilitative program. That is, it doesn't attempt to help offenders make better choices with regard to their sexual lives. Instead, chemical castration simply removes an entire realm of rational choice-making (and thus moral development). An offender who is castrated will no longer have the option of developing virtuous character traits that have sexual choices as a component: for example, the traits of being a kind and loving partner, or even of being a good parent.
This direct alteration of an offender's character - like the direct removal of an offender's violent tendencies, instead of anger management training - is an unjustifiable infringement on his moral autonomy. Thus chemical castration is an unethical punishment practice.