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What’s chemical castration — the punishment Pakistan plans to introduce for sex crimes

Chemical castration uses chemicals to reduce a man's libido by lowering testosterone — the predominant sex hormone in males.

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New Delhi: The Pakistan government Tuesday said that it was all set to introduce harsher punishments against rapists and sexual offenders, including the death penalty and the controversial practice of chemical castration. The country’s law minister Dr Farogh Naseem noted that the offenders would be subjected to castration that would last either “for some time or for life”.

Chemical castration uses certain chemicals to reduce a man’s libido or sexual activity by lowering testosterone — the predominant sex hormone in males.

This type of castration has been used as a punishment against sex offenders since the 1940s. In 2003, researchers Charles L. Scott and Trent Holmberg noted that the “first reported use of hormonally based medications to reduce pathological sexual behaviour in men [had] occurred [back] in 1944”.

Chemical castration was also among the many “treatments” of homosexuality that was employed in the UK to those convicted under the now defunct 1885 Labouchere Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which criminalised homosexuality.

Mathematician Alan Turing, who is known as the “father of modern computing” and was instrumental to the victory of Allied forces in World War II, was also subjected to chemical castration as punishment for homosexuality in 1952.

In India, debates around introducing this form of castration as punishment for sexual offences have been raging since the 2012 Delhi gang rape-murder case where a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was brutally gang raped and assaulted by six men.

ThePrint explains the science behind this controversial treatment, its impact and the legislation around it in India and other countries.

Also read: On International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women, a look at India’s rape crisis

The process of chemical castration

Chemical castration involves the use of anaphrodisiac substances, which are drugs that lower sexual libido. They include cyproterone acetate (CPA), medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) — which have been in use since the 1960s — and a group of drugs known as GnRH (gonadotropin-releasing hormone) agonists.

While MPA is the “agent of choice” for chemical castration in the US, CPA is used in the UK, Canada and the Middle East. Meanwhile, GnRH agonists are newer hormonal agents and are not used as frequently.

“There are injected chemicals and tablets which the person can be made to take. There are old drugs which have been used for more than 50 years like cyproterone [acetate]. It’s used in birth control as well in women to control excessive hair growth or acne,” explained Dr Ritesh Gupta, the Additional Director at Fortis C-DOC Hospital’s Diabetes and Endocrinology department.

He added: “Then there are some injections that are used medically to treat prostate cancer in older men because this cancer is dependent on testosterone. These anti-testosterone drugs used are a group of drugs called GnRH agonists.”

Studies unclear if chemical castration acts as deterrent

According to medical experts, while chemical castration reduces libido, it is still unclear whether it acts as a deterrent to sexual offences.

A 2013 South Korean study found that chemical castration led to a reduction in the “frequency and intensity of sexual thoughts” and the “frequency of masturbation” in most of the 38 patients, all of whom were sex offenders.

It was, however, inconclusive on whether this led to a reduction in the rate of recidivism — the propensity of a convicted criminal to re-offend.

The study also found that a year after chemical castration the hormonal levels had returned to the baseline or “pre-treatment level”.

Delhi-based psychiatrist Dr Sneha Sharma noted that the underlying principle of chemical castration is fraught.

“There are a number of studies that say that high testosterone levels have links to high levels of aggression…But this is not always a specific or close association,” she told ThePrint

“It’s not a proven fact because of the lack of proper studies. [But] when they speculate, it’s projected that the risk of committing the crime again falls from 50 per cent to around 5-10 per cent,” added Sharma.

Dr Rajesh Sagar, from AIIMS’ Psychiatry department, said that there were two primary arguments to consider for chemical castration.

The first, he noted, is the assumption that a rapist has “increased sexual desire”, which arises from high testosterone levels that should be suppressed.

“There is some evidence that by giving this (chemical castration) you drastically reduce the incidence of these kinds of behaviours,” Sagar told ThePrint.

The second argument is that “predatory behaviour” leads to sexual offences.

Therefore, according to Gupta, “It (chemical castration) does result in the reduction of libido, but one has to understand that sexual offences are not just about the libido. They are also about domination, violence, if you want to prove something.”

He added that chemical castration are known to be effective in treating paedophilia, which is a mental disorder.

This type of castration also has several side effects including depression, loss of bone density, increase in fat deposits, enlargement of breasts in men, loss of body hair and, in some cases, liver disorder.

Also read: Haryana, MP, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, UP account for 66.92% rape cases in 2019 — report

India rejected chemical castration in 2013

In India, the issue of chemical castration as a form of punishment for sexual offences was advocated in a 2011 case, where a man was convicted for raping his 15-year-old stepdaughter over a period of four years.

Kamini Lau, in her capacity as the additional sessions judge, had noted in her judgment that “regulated chemical castration should be encouraged as an alternative to prison for child molesters in order to stop recidivism and decrease instances of sexual assault”.

A year later, following the Delhi gang rape and murder incident, the issue was heavily debated. The BJP, which was the Opposition at the time, also suggested its inclusion in the anti-rape laws that were being framed.

The Congress-led UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government is said to have included it as a punishment in the draft proposal of the law that was submitted to the Justice J.S. Verma Committee, which was set up after the 2012 gang rape incident.

However, according to reports, the Congress seemed to be in two minds about the proposal. While leaders like Renuka Chowdhury had sought chemical castration as punishment for rapists, the party itself said that it did not endorse the suggestion.

The three-member committee rejected the use of chemical castration in their 630-page report in 2013, stating, “We note that it would be unconstitutional and inconsistent with basic human rights treaties for the state to expose any citizen without their consent to potentially dangerous medical side effects.”

Chemical castration laws in other countries

However, several countries across the world have allowed the use of chemical castration as a punishment or optional treatment for sexual offenders.

In 1996, California became the first US state to use it as punishment for repeat child molesters as a condition for parole. Since then it has been implemented in at least seven other states including Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana and Montana.

The Russian Parliament, in 2011, approved a law allowing a court-requested forensic psychiatrist to prescribe chemical castration for sex offenders who had harmed children below 14 years of age.

In Poland and Moldova, child molesters are mandatorily subjected to chemical castration in some cases, while Estonia allows it on a voluntary basis as an alternative to a prison term.

In Indonesia, as well, a presidential regulation in 2016 allowed chemical castration as a punishment for child sex offenders. South Korea, too, enacted a similar law in 2011. This was extended to all forms of rape and sexual assault charges in 2017.

Furthermore, in countries like New Zealand, Israel and the UK there have been individual cases where chemical castration was the punishment for sex offenders.

“It makes sense to have it as an option, maybe after a careful assessment by a doctor or a psychiatrist, one can assess that the person is a serial offender and can have chemical castration. The one good thing is that it is reversible,” Gupta said.

Also read: Sengar, Akbar, Tejpal: Hearings in these cases less about justice, more about victim shaming


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