Should We Chemically Castrate Sex Offenders to Prevent More Abuse?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


June 30, 2020

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York City.

I think no crime makes people as angry as the molestation of children, who are helpless and don't understand sexuality. We feel that the people who prey on them are truly monsters and we want them punished. On the other hand, we also know that people may undergo rehabilitation and treatment, and at different times they come up for parole and reach the end of their sentence.

Tennessee has proposed requiring anyone eligible for parole who has been convicted of sex offenses against a minor under the age of 13 to undergo chemical castration. This is modeled on a law that has already passed in Alabama. Offenders are required to take medicines that suppress testosterone, which allegedly take away sexual libido. Therefore, they're not a risk, when out in public, of committing more crimes against children. It's really meant to work as a deterrent against acts directed at very young children.

I take the position, however, that you can't trust chemical castration. It's not a new idea; it has been around for decades and decades and has been attempted in some other countries. The main problem is that although chemical castration does lower the rate of reoffending from approximately 40% to 15%, it's not perfect. [Editor's note: The Scandinavian research reports a drop from 40% to 5%.]

Therefore, you have a situation where you say to someone, "You've done your time and we're going to parole you early, because you seem to be doing well in rehab. But we're going to send you out there with still some risks that you're going to reoffend."

I don't think that's tolerable. I hate to say it, but I don't think sexual offenders should come up for parole this way. I think they have to serve out their sentences. Keeping them away from children is the key thing to do. Does that have to be done in prison or could it be done in some other controlled setting, such as under supervision in a halfway house or even some sort of mental institution? I don't know. But I don't trust chemical castration to do what its proponents say it's going to do: let people get out in the world and keep children safe. It still doesn't work well enough.

There is also a related problem. Some who commit these crimes are not doing so as a sexual activity. Instead, they may do it for power and to hurt people. We sometimes hear that the act of rape is not just about sex but is instead about violence. And I fear that some of the people who offend against children will still have that in their heads even if their sexual drive is reduced.

Because of that, I'm not sure that I can support this legislation. I understand the motive of trying to keep kids safer when offenders are let out, but I'm not sure the case can be made that this tool is really going to get us where we need to be.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU School of Medicine. Thanks for watching.

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