Alabama Passes Bill Mandating Chemical Castration for Pedophiles - Rolling Stone
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Alabama Sex Offender Bill: What Is Chemical Castration and Why Is it So Controversial?

While there is no cure for pedophilia, the ACLU believes forcing sex offenders to undergo chemical castration is a violation of the Constitution

A new bill requires anyone convicted of sexually abusing a person 13 or younger to be given testosterone-reducing medication before their release from prison.

Peter Dejong/AP/Shutterstock

On Monday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a controversial bill requiring that sex offenders in her state who are convicted of molesting a child — defined under Alabama law as anyone under the age of 13 — be chemically castrated as a condition of their release from prison. The bill would require sex offenders who fall in this category to take a series of injectable medications known as medroxyprogesterone acetate treatment, which blocks the production of testosterone in men. (For women, it’s also marketed as Depo-Provera, a form of contraception.) The testosterone-suppressing injections are not permanent, but under the new Alabama law, convicted sex offenders must take the medication at least a month before their release date and continue taking it until a judge no longer deems it necessary.

The bill, HB 379, was sponsored by Republican Representative Stephen Hurst, who had previously introduced another version of a chemical castration bill in 2016. Last week, he defended the bill to local news outlet WAFF 48: “People say this is inhumane. ‘How can it be any more inhumane than molesting a small child?’ Now that’s one of the most inhumane things there are,” Hurst said. (Rep. Hurst voted to pass the controversial near-abortion ban that Gov. Ivey signed into law last month; he also made headlines by using a large inflatable gun as a parade float while campaigning in the 2014 midterm elections.)

To be clear, Alabama is not the only state that has a chemical castration law on its books. California, for instance, passed a law in 2010 requiring repeat sex offenders to undergo chemical castration following a second offense; other states like Texas allow chemical castration for sex offenders, though it is not mandatory. (Michigan also previously passed a similar law, which was overturned on appeal in 1984.)

Chemical castration is highly controversial, and government-mandated chemical castration even more so. There are myriad potential negative health side effects of the medication (it has been linked to infertility, as well as an increased risk of osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease). Elizabeth Letourneau, PhD, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that from a policy perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to require sex offenders to take such medication.

“Chemicals that reduce sexual arousal can be useful for people who acknowledge they need help controlling their arousal and they want this type of help and they think it’ll help them, whether they’re incarcerated or not,” she says. But this ultimately applies to a “small percent” of sex offenders, many of whom are not even “preferentially” sexually attracted to children in the first place. Mandating chemical castration is also based on the assumption that many sex offenders will go on to abuse children again, which Letourneau says is incorrect. One 2018 study assessing the risk of recidivism among adults convicted of sex crimes over 25 years found a rate of 18%, which she says is lower than that of other types of crimes.  “This idea that for every person in prison for a sex crime, you need to castrate them or they’re gonna go out and commit more horrible offenses, is a gross generalization and demonstrates a great misunderstanding of the problem,” she says. 

Additionally, there are obvious ethical concerns related to mandated chemical castration, regardless of the severity of the crimes an offender may have committed. “We find this disturbing, we find this a step backwards, and if it is enforced and a judge actually mandates it, we may have to consider pursuing litigation,” says Dillon Nettles, policy analyst for the ACLU of Alabama. Nettles said it is the ACLU’s position that mandated chemical castration violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the state inflicting “cruel and unusual punishments” on offenders.

It’s also not insignificant that Gov. Ivey signed the chemical castration ban into law at a time when Alabama is conducting an “assault” on bodily autonomy in the form of its war against reproductive rights, Nettles said. “This all seems to be part of an ongoing effort to violate the constitution,” he says. It’s also worth noting that HB 379 comes at a time when Alabama has already attracted scrutiny for its poor treatment of prisoners, following a Department of Justice report last April outlining myriad human rights violations in the penal system, such as rampant physical and sexual abuse.

What Nettles finds particularly worthy of ire about HB 379, however, is that it is ostensibly intended to protect the rights of underage sexual assault victims, which the Alabama near-abortion ban, in failing to contain an amendment allowing abortion in the vast majority of cases of rape or incest, notably does not. It also represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics of sexual assault, which is not dictated so much by sex drive as a desire for dominance and control, Nettles says.

“Sexual assault is about power. It’s not about pleasure or gratification,” he told Rolling Stone. “The fact that they’re thinking that if you’ve committed a sex offense on a child under the age of 13, then [chemical castration] will somehow deter that from happening again, not only undermines what we know about sexual assault, it also undermines what Alabama considers itself doing with the criminal justice system,” in terms of restoring criminals and reintroducing them into society when they have met the conditions of their parole.

Of course, the goal of chemical castration is not to mete out medieval justice to sex offenders — it’s to prevent them from abusing again. In light of the fact that there is no established “cure” for pedophilia, there is some evidence to suggest that chemical castration may be effective at curbing such desires. A Korean study (albeit one with a fairly limited sample size) found that undergoing chemical castration significantly reduced patients’ sex drive and the frequency of their sexual thoughts.

Due to the stigma associated with pedophilia, some have voluntarily opted for chemical castration to rid themselves of their urges. The trouble arises, however, when the state makes that decision for offenders, without their informed consent. (In a similar vein, many civil liberties advocates have also questioned law enforcement’s use of the penile plethysmograph, a highly controversial device that measures blood flow to the penis and is used to gauge whether or not sexual offenders are attracted to minors; many have suggested that it is not a reliable gauge of sexual desire and should not be admitted in court as evidence of attraction to minors.)

In lieu of mandated chemical castration for sex offenders, Letourneau advocates for implementing widespread prevention initiatives for people who are identified as likely to offend. “We continue to come after [child sexual abuse] long after the fact,” she said. “We have to get policy makers to address it before harm happens, as a public health preventable problem.”

It is the ACLU’s stance that chemical castration constitutes nothing less than an egregious civil rights violation, regardless of the severity of an offender’s crime. “We have to begin to rethink how our justice system actually deals with individuals who have engaged in pedophilia and sex crimes,” Nettles said. “How do we actually look at restoration? Ultimately if we are trying to achieve a system that allows for people when they are released to be less likely to re-offend, to be more likely to receive treatment or receive assistance in confronting these types of challenges and these types of heinous crimes…I think [chemical castration] is a fundamental undermining of that system.”

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